Medicine: Living Disease

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Smallpox reappears in Britain

Time and again the World Health Organization has declared smallpox extinct, only to have the ancient scourge reappear like a genie from a virologist's flask. Although the last known case of smallpox occurred in Somalia last October, the disease has not died out. An Englishwoman working at the University of Birmingham Medical School contracted it, presumably from virus escaping from a lab on a floor below. Before the case was diagnosed, a co-worker flew off to North Dakota on a holiday, thereby extending the smallpox alert to the U.S.

So far the only known victim is Janet Parker, 40, a medical photographer. She developed fever and a rash in early August, but two weeks passed before her illness was diagnosed as variola major, the severe form of smallpox. The time lag is understandable. There have been no smallpox deaths in Britain for five years, and doctors rarely see the disease.

Health officials quickly quarantined almost 300 of Parker's close associates and casual contacts. And in the North Dakota farming town of Lakota, local authorities, aided by an epidemiologist sent by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, kept the vacationing British woman and residents under surveillance. Though the contacts on both sides of the Atlantic remained well last week, smallpox jitters gripped Birmingham, England's second most populous city, and thousands of people demanded immediate inoculations.

Parker appeared to be recovering, but her case indirectly claimed two lives. Her father, Frederick Witcomb, 77, died of an apparent heart attack after learning of his daughter's illness. Henry Bedson, 48, head of Birmingham's microbiology department and official custodian of its smallpox virus, was found with his throat slashed, with no indication of foul play.

Because the incident follows a similar one at a London hospital in 1973 that claimed two lives, it confirmed WHO'S belief that virus labs have become the last major source of smallpox danger. Already WHO has recommended that only five centers in the entire world, including the CDC in Atlanta, be allowed to store strains of the virus for research purposes. Birmingham was not one of these, and Bedson had planned to destroy his lethal collection in 1980.