TCS Daily

Smallpox Martyrs, American Style

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 18, 2002 12:00 AM

The Bush Administration is going ahead with a massive smallpox vaccination campaign - a radical step, given that smallpox was officially eradicated decades ago. President Bush will even receive the vaccine, a step probably meant as much as a response to critics and a symbol of leadership as an actual precaution. (One hopes, anyway.) Still, millions of Americans will be vaccinated, and the way seems clear to near-universal vaccination within a few years.

But, symbolism aside, there is another answer to the critics: despite the risks (and they are real) of the smallpox vaccination program, the wide-scale vaccination of Americans is justified not simply as a defensive measure for America, but as a means of protecting the rest of the world. America's smallpox vaccination program isn't simply a defense against terror attacks launched at the United States; it is a deterrent to smallpox attacks being launched at all. Though this point seems obvious, it's one that hasn't gotten very much attention amid discussion of vaccine risks, impaired immune systems, and side effects. That's too bad, because it's an important point.

Despite - or perhaps because of the 1972 germ warfare treaty - smallpox's official "eradication" is a notional thing. The ink was barely dry on the 1972 Treaty before a number of signatory nations, like the Soviet Union, embarked on massive new biowar programs, under the (correct) assumption that the United States would abide by the treaty and thus wouldn't match their efforts, allowing them to steal a march. The result is that large quantities of weaponized smallpox are reportedly in storage and potentially available to terrorists.

It wouldn't take much in the way of resources to deliver smallpox, either. Just a few "smallpox martyrs" - terrorists who allow themselves to be infected with the disease and then travel by air when it's at its most contagious - could spread it to thousands. Those thousands, if unvaccinated, could spread the disease to millions. The old-style response of "ring vaccination," designed with less-mobile populations in mind, would likely be ineffective.

Of course, those thousands - much less those millions - won't all be Americans. Airline passengers are from every nation, and any effort to infect the United States is sure to spread smallpox to many other countries, whose citizens will generally be more vulnerable than Americans, in light of poor medical treatment and higher population densities. Ironically, Islamic nations are likely to be the most vulnerable, given the large numbers of wealthy Muslims who fly weekly to Mecca for Friday prayers from dozens of other countries, meet with other Muslims from around the world, and then fly home again.

This might deter terrorists - at least, Islamic terrorists - from releasing smallpox in the first place, but given the culture of martyrdom that such terrorists share, it's not clear that the prospect of millions of Muslim deaths would be enough to discourage an effort that promised to bring the Great Satan to its knees. Indeed, to some terrorists the prospect of millions of Muslim deaths may seem less like a bug, than a feature.

But even the most hardened Wahabbist is unlikely to favor releasing smallpox if it would result in millions of Muslim deaths without bringing America to its knees. And, by rendering much of America immune, the vaccination program will bring that situation about, making the release of smallpox much, much less likely.

Ironically, non-American beneficiaries will probably be far more numerous than the Americans who are vaccinated. And that's another argument in support of mass vaccinations. It's also a reason the Americans who are vaccinated should be praised: they're not just protecting America; they're protecting the world. And as for those who suffer side effects, they'll be "smallpox martyrs," too - but martyrs of a very different sort.



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