Guarding against panic, CDC pushes specific definition of smallpox

Tuesday, December 18th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTA (AP) _ The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged state health officials around the country Tuesday to carefully study smallpox so doctors do not cause a panic by misidentifying a less dangerous virus.

At a training meeting for 200 state public health officers, the CDC released its most specific guidelines yet for a suspected case of the virus, which in its early stages can be confused with chickenpox or herpes.

``We don't want to be investigating millions of rashes right now,'' said Dr. William Atkinson of CDC's National Immunization Program.

Smallpox is highly contagious, can travel by air and kills 20 percent to 30 percent of people who are infected. Terrorism experts fear the virus could fall into the wrong hands and be released intentionally.

The new guidelines define a suspected smallpox case as a fever of at least 101 degrees, followed by a rash with firm, deep-seated bumps on the body, in a patient whose illness cannot otherwise be explained.

Any real smallpox case would trigger a public health emergency, with immediate quarantine of the infected person and quick vaccination of anyone who has been exposed.

Most of the government's information on smallpox is no more recent than the 1970s, the last time human cases were seen.

``The truth is that we don't really know how this will happen, if it will happen,'' Atkinson said. ``Will it be a lone person? Will it be someone on an airplane? Will it be someone with an aerosol? The virus may not act the way we expect it to act.''