Virions from a smallpox vaccine
What’s the News: Global health officials are expected to decide whether to destroy the world’s last caches of smallpox at the 64th World Health Assembly this week. The disease was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1979, but two small stores of the virus remain: one at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and one in a Russian government lab.
Now, public health officials are divided on how to ensure that the disease stays eradicated. Some say our best bet is to keep the remaining samples of the virus safe and continue to study them, then destroy them at a later date; others say the safest course is to destroy them now, once and for all.
In 8 May 1980, the World Health Organisation declared that “the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox.” Through decades of intense vaccination, this once fatal disease had been wiped out. It was a singular victory and having won it, countries around the world discontinued the vaccination programmes. After all, why protect against a disease that no longer exists (save in a few isolated stocks)?
Unfortunately, this is not a rhetorical question. The smallpox vaccine did more than protect against smallpox. It also reduced the risk of contracting a related illness called monkeypox, which produces the same combination of scabby bumps and fever. It’s milder than smallpox but it’s still a serious affliction. In Africa, where monkeypox originates from, it kills anywhere from 1-10% of those who are infected. And more and more people are becoming infected.
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Image: U.S. Air Force
With smallpox largely eradicated around the world, health organizations phased out the smallpox vaccine between the 1950s and 1970s (the last natural case of the disease was seen in 1977, in Somalia). During that span, Raymond Weinstein says, the AIDS crisis broke out in force. And in a study in BMC Immunology, he argues those two events could be connected.
Supposing that smallpox vaccination could have some effect on a person’s susceptibility to HIV, researchers led by Weinstein tested the idea on cells in a lab. They took immune cells from 10 people recently vaccinated against smallpox and 10 people never vaccinated. HIV, they found, was five times less successful at replicating with the cells of vaccinated people.
The researchers believe vaccination may offer some protection against HIV by producing long-term alterations in the immune system, possibly including the expression of a receptor called CCR5 on the surface of white blood cells, which is exploited by the smallpox virus and HIV [BBC News].
Any finding that expands knowledge of how HIV replicates could be an important one. And while this small study can’t prove Weinstein’s assertion is correct, the argument is, at the very least, plausible. Says Weinstein:
“There have been several proposed explanations for the rapid spread of HIV in Africa, including wars, the reuse of unsterilised needles and the contamination of early batches of polio vaccine. However, all of these have been either disproved or do not sufficiently explain the behaviour of the HIV pandemic” [Press Association].
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