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A Clamor For Smallpox Vaccine

Schaap January 2001
AP
A government order for the first vials of smallpox vaccine won't be ready until late winter - but some say that's not soon enough.

The Washington Post reported that officials and citizens alike are clamoring for protection against a possible bioterrorist attack. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., wants his granddaughters inoculated. And a group of Maryland parents is pressuring officials for the vaccine.

One pediatrician says emergency workers should be vaccinated first. But the Bush administration says it'll hand out doses only if an outbreak happens.

Experts say vaccinating the entire country could cause 600-1,000 deaths from side effects. But one medical expert says the decision should be up to citizens - not the government.

The recent anthrax mailings have renewed fears of a smallpox attack. Thirty percent of smallpox victims die.

In a separate development, the newspaper reported that after two years of experimenting in secret, Washington will become the first subway system in the world that can detect a toxic-chemical release.

The Post cited federal scientists as saying the move showed the technology was ready for use in other subway systems and in airports, shopping malls and large, enclosed public spaces in general.

The Aum Shrinrikyo cult in Japan attacked Tokyo subways with sarin nerve gas on March 20, 1995, killing 12 people and sickening more than 5,000. The cult had an apocalyptic theology that sanctioned mass killing.

Anthony Policastro, an engineer at Sandia National Laboratory who is overseeing the project in Washington's Metro system, was quoted as saying his team would continue to improve the sensors but the basic system worked.

"We have been testing for some time, and we're satisfied," he told the Post.

Subway managers in Chicago, Atlanta and Los Angeles have expressed interest in the technology, as have National Park Service officials, Policastro was quoted as saying. Boston has begun experimenting with a sensor at the suggestion of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratory, which is providing technical expertise. The Park Service is considering installing sensors in the Statue of Liberty, the paper said.

It said work on Washington's $7.5 million Metro sensors began in 1999 and was progressing quietly until Sept. 11, when terrorist attacks made it a priority among lawmakers and administration officials.

On Thursday, Congress approved $15 million to expand Metro's sensor program from two stations to 12. Transit Police Chief Barry McDevitt said the goal was to install sensors in all 47 underground stations in the Metro system, the Post reported.

Although chemical sensors have been available to the military for some time, their use in public spaces such as shopping malls and subway stations is new.

Initially, two stations will get the shoebox-sized sensors, which are to be hidden from view while they continuously suck in air and analyze it.

When they detect one f several toxic chemicals, they sound an alarm in Metro's operations control center. Policastro would not discuss the chemicals the sensors were designed to detect, the Post said.

The devices were described as not yet able to pick up biological agents, such as anthrax bacteria and smallpox viruses. The military has sensors that can detect biological agents, but they are bulky and expensive and have been troubled by false warnings. Policastro told the paper it would be a couple of years before one was developed for use in the subway.

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