ATLANTA -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has vaccinated some of its health workers against smallpox as a precaution in case they need to investigate a terrorist attack involving the deadly virus, a spokesman said.
While the CDC has no evidence that anyone is readying a terrorist attack using smallpox, which was eradicated outside laboratories 21 years ago, officials of the federal agency say the virus is so dangerous that it is important they be prepared.
"We are putting together several teams that could be quickly dispatched to the field if we did see a suspected case of smallpox," CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said Sunday.
The agency expects a number of false alarms as doctors heighten their suspicion of anthrax, smallpox and other diseases, said Dr. Jeffrey Koplan, the CDC director.
Last week, the CDC vaccinated several dozen members of epidemiological teams that can be sent at a moment's notice to examine suspected cases of smallpox.
This week, the CDC will begin a series of training courses on smallpox for some employees and state and local health workers.
The contagious virus is known to survive only in laboratories in the United States and Russia. However, germ warfare experts suspect that other countries, including North Korea and Iraq, may have secretly obtained stocks.
Health experts worry about smallpox because it can spread quickly from person to person and has a high death rate. The infection is characterized by a rash and a fever of at least 102 degrees.
Many Americans are susceptible to smallpox because they were never vaccinated, or were vaccinated but have decreased protection because the vaccine has worn off. The United States stopped smallpox immunizations in 1972.
Skinner said the CDC is not calling for public vaccinations now.
Since smallpox was eradicated, the CDC has sent epidemiologists to investigate suspect illnesses a few times a year.
Smallpox experts were sent to evaluate specific cases three times last month, said Dr. James Hughes, who directs the agency's center for infectious diseases. None of the patients had smallpox.
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