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updated 5/18/2007 10:46:54 AM ET 2007-05-18T14:46:54

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday delayed for at least four years any decision on when to destroy the world’s last known stockpiles of smallpox, a deadly virus eradicated nearly 30 years ago.

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There is no treatment for the virus that was killing millions of people a year as recently as the 1960s and left many more blind and scarred. In 1979, it became the first disease officially stamped out after a worldwide vaccination campaign.

But the United States and Russia, which hold the only known stockpiles of the virus in high-security laboratories, have long resisted calls to destroy them in case smallpox is found to exist elsewhere.

The 60th annual World Health Assembly, the top decision-taking body of the United Nations agency, reaffirmed a previous commitment to getting rid of the remaining stockpiles but agreed to postpone any decision on when this should happen until its 2011 meeting.

A previous 2002 deadline for destroying smallpox had been waived by the WHO until new vaccines or treatments for smallpox were found, after the United States said it would keep stocks on hand to combat any re-emergence of the disease.

Vaccine stockpile
Separately, U.S. government advisers backed a second-generation smallpox vaccine on Thursday as safe enough to be used if the virus reappears. The FDA advisory committee voted unanimously that British manufacturer Acambis’ vaccine works and is safe enough to use in special situations where people are deemed at high risk of smallpox exposure. The FDA isn’t bound by its advisers’ recommendations, but usually follows them.

The drug maker already has provided 192.5 million doses of the experimental vaccine to a U.S. stockpile.

The U.S. ended routine vaccination against smallpox in 1971. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, concern arose that smallpox and other infections could be engineered as weapons, sparking a move to stockpile certain vaccines in case they’re ever needed — and to vaccinate some military personnel and healthcare workers.

The old U.S smallpox vaccine, called Dryvax, is no longer made, although there are leftover supplies.

Like Dryvax, the Acambis vaccine is made using a relative of the smallpox virus called vaccinia. Both are live-virus vaccines, and FDA scientists who reviewed studies of the new version concluded that both pose similar risks of serious side effects. They include itch, rash and pain, and rare cases of inflammation of the heart and its surrounding sac.

Still, the FDA review concluded those risks would be acceptable for people deemed at high risk of exposure to smallpox.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report


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