Smallpox outbreak in Pakistan?

By Ron Strom

Pakistan’s major English-language daily newspaper has reported what it calls a “smallpox epidemic” that is “rapidly spreading” in the Pakistani district of Swabi, a development that, if true, raises grave concerns about global health and bioterrorism.

Neither the Centers for Disease Control nor the World Health Organization has confirmed or denied the lone report.

Although the highly communicable and fatal disease was officially eradicated from the world in 1977, in recent months the threat of a smallpox bioterror attack has raised new questions about who might have access to the virus and how it could be used as a deadly weapon against large population bases.

According to the Pakistan Dawn story, “a large number of children have suffered from smallpox, but the authorities concerned have failed to take any action to prevent this disease or immunize the people against it.” The story adds, “A health official said that the dilemma of the people was that they were not aware of the danger aspects of this ailment as the children suffering from it have neither been kept in isolation nor properly treated.”

When contacted by WorldNetDaily, Ismail Khan, the Dawn bureau chief at Peshawar, said he stands by the story.

“I would presume it is correct,” he said. “This is the first major story on this disease.”

Khan says that, to his knowledge, no other media organization has picked up the story. “You’re the first to call about it,” he said.

The story also appeared in the paper’s hardcopy version in Pakistan. Khan says no government officials have contacted the paper to dispute the story and that the reporter had in fact spoken to an official from the government’s health department.

Rebecca Harding of the World Health Organization’s press office knew nothing of the story, but was eager to look into it.

A spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control says he had not heard anything from official sources about any outbreak.

“We did get some anecdotal reports,” said the CDC’s Llelwyn Grant.

“There are so many poxes out there that are sometimes misdiagnosed,” Grant continued. “It could be a number of things.”

If a nation’s health minister were to contact the CDC, Grant mentioned, the organization would then take action to help the affected country deal with an epidemic.

Last week, the CDC began an unprecedented series of public forums around the nation, according to its website, to “solicit comments on the use of smallpox vaccine before and after a potential smallpox outbreak or bioterroist attack.”

Terror experts have speculated on al-Qaida and other organizations’ plans for bioterrorism and how deadly a smallpox attack would be. Pakistan is known to have pockets of al-Qaida operatives working within its borders.