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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Far East's Smallpox Scare a False Alarm

Eight children aged 6 to 12 were hospitalized with fever and skin rash in Vladivostok after playing with discarded ampoules containing a smallpox vaccine, which local health care workers failed to dispose of properly, a regional health official said Monday.

The condition of all the children undergoing treatment at city hospital No. 2 was back to normal Monday, said Dmitry Maslov, head of the Primorye regional health inspectorate, in a telephone interview from the Far East city of Vladivostok.

The local prosecutor's office has launched an investigation to determine who was responsible for the negligence.

Maslov admitted the children had gotten infected due to negligence on the part of his workers, who destroyed part of the vaccine stock properly but threw the restinto a trash container near the local offices of the State Health Inspectorate. The children found the ampoules and sprinkled each other with water mixed with the powder inside, he said.

Maslov also said there is no threat the illness may spread to other people, adding that some of the children who were hospitalized last week will be discharged within the next two days.

The children's condition cannot be described as a case of the highly infectious smallpox, which would require strict quarantine for a minimum of two and a half weeks, Maslov said. Their condition is similar to the way one might feel after being vaccinated, he added.

"Apparently the children have received exogenous vaccination," Maslov said.

Smallpox, caused by the variola virus, was officially declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1989. The last case of the frightening disease was registered in Somalia in 1977 f the same year that Russia and others abandoned mandatory vaccinations.

In the past, the variola virus, along with anthrax and plague, were used to develop biological weapons. Former President Boris Yeltsin ordered that work on germ warfare be abandoned in Russia in 1992, but according to some reports that appeared in Western media in recent years, the research continues behind the closed doors of secret Defense Ministry labs.

Two strains of the variola virus are still stored at two WHO-approved repositories at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta and in the Siberian town of Koltsovo in the Novosibirsk region. In 1996, WHO's governing board issued a recommendation that all stocks of smallpox be destroyed by 1999, but neither the United States nor Russia has complied.

Dr. Guenael Rodier of WHO said in a telephone interview from Geneva that the vaccine against smallpox, called vaccinia, cannot cause smallpox on its own, because it is prepared with a prototype of the virus causing smallpox rather than the real thing.

Rodier also said that many countries keep some vaccine in stock to safeguard themselves against the possibility of a germ warfare attack.

Maslov denied reports that health officials had tried to conceal an outbreak of smallpox, saying the diagnosis simply took a long time because doctors had no previous experience dealing with smallpox symptoms and hadn't known about the children's dangerous discovery at the nearby dump.

NTV television showed several mothers of the infected children waiting around the hospital, with one of them complaining that doctors were so scared of contracting the disease that they would not go near the sick children. Another woman, identified as Albina Polovinkina, said that last year several children were poisoned after they had tried some pills found in the same trash containers.

But Maslov called the reaction of the parents overly "emotional."

A doctor at the hospital, who confirmed the children's condition was satisfactory, said parents were to blame.

"Why has the word smallpox suddenly started circulating? It's those crazy mothers who get everybody stirred up. They don't look after their children when they go collect garbage, then they start blaming whomever they please."