What is UK position on smallpox vaccination?
Q When did the smallpox vaccine programme end in the UK? Are adults who were immunised likely to still be immune, and, if not, would they need re-immunisation in the event of a national programme?
A The last case of endemic smallpox occurred in Somalia in 1977. By 1980, the WHO had declared the disease eradicated. With no natural reservoir, variola virus has since existed only in laboratories. The last case of smallpox in the world was due to infection acquired in a Birmingham laboratory in 1978.
In 1938 smallpox vaccination was the only routine immunisation in
the UK. Compulsory smallpox vaccination ended in 1948 and vaccination was discontinued in 1971.
A successful primary vaccination confers full immunity to smallpox in more than 95 per cent of patients for about five to 10 years. Successful revaccination probably provides protection for 10 to 20 years or more. In order to maintain high levels of immunity, booster vaccinations are needed every three to five years.
As some 30 years have passed since smallpox vaccination was discontinued in the UK, adults who were successfully immunised then are unlikely to have sufficient immunity today. In the event of a national programme, they should be given a booster dose.
Dr George Kassianos, a GP in Bracknell Forest, Berkshire, is an RCGP spokesperson on immunisation