The National Foundation for Infectious Diseases talked with reporters about national preparedness against bioterror, as well as the misconceptions and psychological impact of the ongoing anthrax episodes.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said there currently is no evidence of smallpox, but U.S. officials are taking steps to be prepared for it.
"We happen to be, at this point in time, almost the victim of our own success," Fauci said. "The public health community succeeded in eradicating smallpox from the world, and with that was the discontinuation of the immunizations against smallpox. Now we have a relatively naive and unprotected population, which we're trying to do something about."
The country currently has 15 million doses of smallpox vaccine, Fauci said, and tests are underway to see how effective the doses remain after dilution.
If the vaccine remains useful at one-fifth strength, then 75 million people can be treated, he said. At one-tenth strength, the stockpile would cover 150 million people. The country also is accelerating efforts to produce more full-strength vaccine, he said.
However many doses are eventually available, they can be distributed more effectively when doctors take advantage of the smallpox incubation period of from one week to 17 days, Fauci said. Smallpox is not immediately contagious, he said, so vaccines administered during the "grace period" before symptoms arise could help stem any outbreak.
There also is great promise in the area of antiviral drugs, Fauci said. The fight against HIV has created several medications highly effective against pox-like viruses in animals, he said, and researchers are studying those results for applicability in humans.
As for anthrax, Fauci said pharmaceutical companies are working on tests to spot exposure and infection more rapidly. Those tests would probably also have a higher incidence of false positives, he cautioned.
Fauci said government officials have made only small mistakes while speaking publicly about the outbreak, and praised their overall leadership.
Other speakers, including noted psychologist Dr. Joyce Brothers, said people should avoid taking unnecessary precautions out of superstition or misinformation. Brothers said the House of Representatives showed reasonable caution in closing its offices to allow health inspections. She also praised the media for reporting information fairly and quickly while avoiding rumors.
The forerunners of psychological problems stemming from the anthrax outbreak are starting to appear, Brothers said. People are self-medicating, she said, with liquor stores reporting higher sales and doctors reporting more requests for tranquilizers.
The best way to avoid mass hysteria, Brothers said, relies on the three kinds of human reactions to extreme emergencies: altruistic behavior, freezing in place and mindlessly fleeing. Each occur in about a third of the population. Focusing the altruistic third's helpful actions on those reacting without thinking will stop the situation from boiling over, she said.