Aral smallpox incident

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The Aral smallpox incident was a 1971 outbreak of the viral disease which occurred as a result of a field test at a Soviet biological weapons (BW) facility on an island in the Aral Sea. The incident sickened ten people, of whom 3 died, and came to widespread public notice only in 2002.[1]

Background[edit]

In 1954, a biological weapons test site called Aralsk-7 was built on Vozrozhdeniya (Rebirth) Island, and the neighboring Komsomolskiy Island, in the Aral Sea.[2] (Today the area belongs jointly to the post-Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.) The Soviet Ministry of Defence also established a field scientific research laboratory on Rebirth Island to conduct biological experiments.[3] Bio-agents tested there included Bacillus anthracis, Coxiella burnetii, Francisella tularensis, Brucella suis, Rickettsia prowazekii, Variola major (smallpox), Yersinia pestis, botulinum toxin, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus.[4] (By 1960, the Soviet biological weapons program also included numerous other research and operational facilities throughout the country.) Aralsk-7 had a history of association with mass deaths of fish, various regional plague outbreaks, a saiga antelope die-off, and individual cases of infectious disease among visitors to Rebirth Island.[5]

The incident[edit]

According to Soviet General Pyotr Burgasov (Peter Burgasov), field testing of 400 grams of smallpox at Renaissance Island caused an outbreak on July 30, 1971.[6] Burgasov, former Chief Sanitary Physician of the Soviet Army, former Soviet Vice-Minister of Health and a senior researcher within the Soviet BW program, described the incident:

On Vozrozhdeniya Island in the Aral Sea, the strongest recipes of smallpox were tested. Suddenly I was informed that there were mysterious cases of mortalities in Aralsk [Aral]. A research ship of the Aral fleet came to within 15 km of the island (it was forbidden to come any closer than 40 km). The lab technician of this ship took samples of plankton twice a day from the top deck. The smallpox formulation—400 gr. of which was exploded on the island—”got her” and she became infected. After returning home to Aralsk, she infected several people including children. All of them died. I suspected the reason for this and called the Chief of General Staff of Ministry of Defense and requested to forbid the stop of the Alma-Ata-Moscow train in Aralsk. As a result, the epidemic around the country was prevented. I called [future Soviet General Secretary Yuri] Andropov, who at that time was Chief of KGB, and informed him of the exclusive recipe of smallpox obtained on Vozrazhdenie Island.[7][8]

It may never be known whether the release of smallpox was purposeful, but the research ship Lev Berg inadvertently traveled into the plume of this bioweapons release, initiating the smallpox outbreak in Aral. (Some have contended, however, that Burgasov was wrong and that the first patient may have contracted the disease while visiting Uyaly or Komsomolsk-on-Ustyurt, two cities in what is now Uzbekistan where the boat docked.[9][10])

Clinical details[edit]

The incident caused ten persons to contract smallpox and three unvaccinated individuals (a woman and two children) died from the haemorrhagic form of the disease. One crew member of the Lev Berg contracted smallpox as the ship passed within 9 miles of the island. This crew member became ill on August 6 with fever, headache, and myalgia. The ship then landed in the port city of Aral on August 11. The ill crew member returned to her home, and she developed a cough and temperature exceeding 38.9°C (102°F). Her physician prescribed antibiotics and aspirin. Although she was previously vaccinated for smallpox, a rash subsequently appeared on her back, face, and scalp; her fever subsided; and she recovered by August 15. On August 27 this patient’s 9-year-old brother developed a rash and fever, his pediatrician prescribed tetracycline and aspirin, and he recovered.[11]

During the following 3 weeks, eight additional cases of fever and rash occurred in Aral. Five adults ranging in age from 23 to 60, and three children (4 and 9 months old, and a 5-year-old) were diagnosed with smallpox both clinically and by laboratory testing. These children and the 23-year-old were previously unvaccinated. The two youngest children and the 23-year-old subsequently developed the haemorrhagic form of smallpox and died. The remaining individuals had previously been vaccinated, and all recovered after having an attenuated form of the disease.[12]

The high ratio of haemorrhagic smallpox cases in this outbreak, combined with the rate of infectivity and the testimony of General Burgasov, has led to the understanding that an enhanced weaponized strain of smallpox virus was released from Aralsk-7 in 1971.[13][14]

Response[edit]

A massive public health response to the smallpox cases in Aral ensued once the disease was recognized. In less than 2 weeks, approximately 50,000 residents of Aral were vaccinated. Household quarantine of potentially exposed individuals was enacted, and hundreds were isolated in a makeshift facility at the edge of the city. All traffic in and out of the city was stopped, and approximately 54,000 square feet of living space and 18 metric tons of household goods were decontaminated by health officials.[15]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Broad, W.J. and Miller J. (2002), “Traces of Terror: The Bioterror Threat; Report Provides New Details of Soviet Smallpox Accident.”, The New York Times; June 15 issue.
  2. ^ Dembek, Zygmunt F., Julie A. Pavlin, and Mark G. Kortepeter (2007), “Epidemiology of Biowarfare and Bioterrorism”, Chapter 3 of: Dembek, Zygmunt F. (2007), Medical Aspects of Biological Warfare, (Series: Textbooks of Military Medicine), Washington, DC: The Borden Institute, pp 51-52.
  3. ^ Zelicoff, A.P. (2002), “An epidemiological analysis of the 1971 smallpox outbreak in Aralsk, Kazakhstan”, In: Tucker, J.B. and R.A. Zilinskas,eds., The 1971 Smallpox Epidemic in Aralsk, Kazakhstan, and the Soviet Biological Warfare Program; Monterey, California: Monterey Institute of International Studies, Center for Nonproliferation Studies. Occasional Paper No. 9.
  4. ^ Bozheyeva, G., Y. Kunakbayev and D. Yeleukenov (1999), Former Soviet Biological Weapons Facilities in Kazakhstan: Past, Present and Future; Monterey, Calif: Monterey Institute of International Studies, Center for Nonproliferation Studies; Occasional Paper 1.
  5. ^ Bozheyeva, Op. cit.
  6. ^ Broad, Op. cit.
  7. ^ Shoham D, Wolfson Z (2004). "The Russian biological weapons program: vanished or disappeared?" (– Scholar search). Crit. Rev. Microbiol. 30 (4): 241–61. doi:10.1080/10408410490468812. PMID 15646399. [dead link]
  8. ^ "Smallpox – not a bad weapon". Interview with General Burgasov (in Russian). Moscow News. Retrieved 2007-06-18. 
  9. ^ Enserink M (2002). "Biowarfare. Did bioweapons test cause a deadly smallpox outbreak?". Science 296 (5576): 2116–7. doi:10.1126/science.296.5576.2116. PMID 12077372. 
  10. ^ Zelicoff, Alan P.; Bellomo, Michael (2005). Microbe: Are We Ready for the Next Plague?. New York: American Management Association. p. 101. ISBN 978-0-8144-0865-0. 
  11. ^ Zelicoff (2002), Op. cit.
  12. ^ Zelicoff (2002), Op. cit.
  13. ^ Zelicoff (2002), Op. cit.
  14. ^ Dembek, Op. cit.
  15. ^ Zelicoff (2002), Op. cit.
  • This article also contains information that originally came from US Government publications and websites and is in the public domain.