Large quantities of smallpox vaccine have been stockpiled to protect entire nations against a possible reintroduction of smallpox. Planning for an appropriate use of these stockpiled vaccines in response to a smallpox outbreak requires a rational assessment of the risks of vaccination-related adverse events, compared to the risk of contracting an infection. Although considerable effort has been made to understand the dynamics of smallpox transmission in modern societies, little attention has been paid to estimating the frequency of adverse events due to smallpox vaccination. Studies exploring the consequences of smallpox vaccination strategies have commonly used a frequency of approximately one death per million vaccinations, which is based on a study of vaccination with the New York City Board of Health (NYCBH) strain of vaccinia virus. However, a multitude of historical studies of smallpox vaccination with other vaccinia strains suggest that there are strain-related differences in the frequency of adverse events after vaccination. Because many countries have stockpiled vaccine based on the Lister strain of vaccinia virus, a quantitative evaluation of the adverse effects of such vaccines is essential for emergency response planning. We conducted a systematic review and statistical analysis of historical data concerning vaccination against smallpox with different strains of vaccinia virus.
Methods and Findings
We analyzed historical vaccination data extracted from the literature. We extracted data on the frequency of postvaccinal encephalitis and death with respect to vaccinia strain and age of vaccinees. Using a hierarchical Bayesian approach for meta-analysis, we estimated the expected frequencies of postvaccinal encephalitis and death with respect to age at vaccination for smallpox vaccines based on the NYCBH and Lister vaccinia strains. We found large heterogeneity between findings from different studies and a time-period effect that showed decreasing incidences of adverse events over several decades. To estimate death rates, we then restricted our analysis to more-recent studies. We estimated that vaccination with the NYCBH strain leads to an average of 1.4 deaths per million vaccinations (95% credible interval, 0–6) and that vaccination with Lister vaccine leads to an average of 8.4 deaths per million vaccinations (95% credible interval, 0–31). We combined age-dependent estimates of the frequency of death after vaccination and revaccination with demographic data to obtain estimates of the expected number of deaths in present societies due to vaccination with the NYCBH and Lister vaccinia strains.
Previous analyses of smallpox vaccination policies, which rely on the commonly assumed value of one death per million vaccinations, may give serious underestimates of the number of deaths resulting from vaccination. Moreover, because there are large, strain-dependent differences in the frequency of adverse events due to smallpox vaccination, it is difficult to extrapolate from predictions for the NYCBH-derived vaccines (stockpiled in countries such as the US) to predictions for the Lister-derived vaccines (stockpiled in countries such as Germany). In planning for an effective response to a possible smallpox outbreak, public-health decision makers should reconsider their strategies of when to opt for ring vaccination and when to opt for mass vaccination.
Analysis of historical data for adverse events suggests that the commonly assumed number of one death per million vaccinations is inaccurate. Large differences between different vaccinia strains used should be taken into account when mass vaccinations are considered.
For thousands of years, smallpox was one of the world's most-feared diseases. This contagious disease, caused by the variola virus, historically killed about 30 percent of the people it infected. Over the centuries, it probably killed more people than all other infectious diseases combined, but it was also the first disease to be prevented by vaccination. In 1796, the English physician Edward Jenner rubbed pus from the spots of a milkmaid with cowpox into scratches on a young boy's arm; according to folklore, people who caught cowpox, a related but mild disease of cows, were protected against smallpox. Six weeks later, after a mild bout of cowpox, when the boy was challenged with pus from a smallpox patient, he did not develop smallpox. This vaccination procedure was later refined so that people were inoculated with pure preparations of live vaccinia virus, which is closely related to the smallpox and cowpox viruses, and by 1979 a global vaccination campaign had totally eradicated the disease.
Why Was This Study Done?
Smallpox vaccination has some adverse effects. In particular, vaccinia virus occasionally infects the brain. This so-called post-vaccination encephalitis can cause permanent brain damage and, it has been estimated, kills one vaccinee in every million. Consequently, as smallpox became rarer, the dangers of vaccination began to outweigh its benefits. Routine smallpox vaccination stopped in the US in 1972, and in 1980 the World Health Organization recommended that all countries stop vaccination. Now, however, there are fears that smallpox may be used for bioterrorism. If this did happen, exposed individuals and their contacts, possibly even whole populations, would have to be vaccinated as quickly as possible (very few people now have strong immunity to smallpox). Many countries have stockpiles of smallpox vaccines for this eventuality, but these contain different vaccinia virus strains. In this study, the researchers examined historical data to discover whether these strains differ in their potential to cause encephalitis and death. This information should help public-health officials plan their vaccination strategies in response to a bioterrorism attack with smallpox.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers collected data from published studies on smallpox vaccination and adverse events from several countries from the late 1950s onwards. They then used these data to extrapolate how often the different vaccinia strains might cause encephalitis and death if they were used today in vaccination programs. They estimate that vaccinating with the New York City Board of Health (NYCBH) strain, which is stockpiled in the US, might cause 2.9 cases of post-vaccination encephalitis and 1.4 deaths per million vaccinated individuals. In contrast, the Lister strain, which is stockpiled in many European countries, might cause 26.2 cases of post-vaccination encephalitis and 2.5 deaths per million vaccinees. For both strains, vaccination of children younger than 1 year old would cause the highest death rate, and individuals being re-vaccinated would be less likely to die than those being vaccinated for the first time. Finally, the researchers use their figures to estimate that about ten people would die if mass vaccination with the NYCBH strain were used in the Netherlands (population 16 million), whereas 55 people would die if the Lister strain were used.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The data used in this study are of variable quality, so the figures calculated by the researchers are only estimates. For instance, given the scatter of the original data, mass vaccination in the Netherlands with the Lister strain might cause anywhere between seven and nearly 200 deaths. However, the study clearly suggests that more serious adverse events would occur after vaccination with the Lister strain than after vaccination with the NYCBH strain. It also indicates that even in the US, where the NYCBH vaccine strain is stockpiled, previous analyses of the effects of vaccination in response to a bioterrorist attack have probably underestimated how many people might die from post-vaccination encephalitis. Public-health decision makers should incorporate these new estimates into their planning for a smallpox outbreak. These increased estimates of adverse events after vaccination might, for example, make mass vaccination with the Lister strain of vaccinia virus less acceptable. Instead, public-health officials might decide to rely on vaccination of only the people directly exposed to released smallpox virus and their close contacts (ring vaccination) to contain a smallpox outbreak.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.0030272.
World Health Organization, information on smallpox and preparedness in the event of a smallpox outbreak
MedlinePlus encyclopedia entry on smallpox
US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, patient fact sheet on smallpox
US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, information for patients and professionals on smallpox
Wikipedia page on smallpox (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit)
Wellcome Library MedHist, links to information on the history of smallpox vaccination