County prepares health officials for possibility of smallpox outbreak

Amanda Garrett

Medical team ready to help citizens in case of bio-terrorism attack

Terrorists infecting people with smallpox may seem like a nightmare scenario, but Portage County health officials have a plan to combat an outbreak. As part of a nationwide effort, the city is training health employees to deal with a potential outbreak.

Portage County has a vaccinated team of doctors, nurses and health officials who are ready to respond to an outbreak, said John Ferlito, Kent City Health Commissioner.

If smallpox is suspected, the infected person will be taken to Robinson Memorial Hospital and quarantined for 10 to 14 days, Ferlito said.

“We can hold people under quarantine by law,” Ferlito said. “But people are usually so sick, they don’t care if they’re quarantined.”

Smallpox begins as a virus in the respiratory track. After flu-like symptoms, including high fever and a cold, the virus spreads throughout the central nervous system, and the infected person breaks out with red sores — the pox. If the disease is not treated, the virus will spread to all the organs in the body, resulting in organ failure and death, biology professor Christopher Woolverton said.

Health officials would then track down and vaccinate everyone who has come in contact with the infected person in the last three weeks.

The last naturally occurring case of smallpox in the United States was in the 1970s, and any case that would be discovered today would be highly suspicious, Ferlito said.

“I’d be pretty worried if I saw smallpox in the field,” he said. “I would have to assume that it’s bioterrorism.”

Routine vaccinations for smallpox stopped in the 1980s because two or three people a year were dying from the vaccinations, Ferlito said.

The lack of vaccinations makes it easy for an infected terrorist to spread smallpox through person-to-person contact, Woolverton said.

“It’s not that easy to set off a bomb that would spread smallpox,” he said. “The most likely way to spread the virus is for terrorists to infect themselves and then walk around and infect others.”

Whatever way the virus is spread, smallpox is highly contagious, Woolverton said.

“Smallpox is one of the most devastating bioterrorism scenarios that can be imagined,” he said. “One-third of the people who get it will die.”

Smallpox is hard to detect in the early stages, Woolverton said.

“The symptoms of the virus are so confusing because they are similar to the flu,” he said. “Most people would probably think they had the flu and stay in bed.”

Despite the difficulties in identifying smallpox, health officials are well-trained to identify the virus, Woolverton said.

“They have a quite a bit of education on smallpox, and they are trained really well to do a good job detecting the virus.”

Contact news correspondent Amanda Garrett at [email protected].