Facts about smallpox and anthrax

21 Feb 2003 | Cpl. Kristin S. Gambrell

There have been many misconceptions and rumors that have been following the topic of smallpox and anthrax vaccinations recently.

Marines have been preparing for possible deployment by getting their inoculations against these deadly diseases.  In the event of a biological attack, vaccinations are the safest and most reliable way to protect service members.

United Nations inspectors estimate that Saddam Hussein could have produced 25,000 liters of anthrax, according to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's address to the United Nations Feb. 5, 2003.  One teaspoon was enough to shut down the United States Senate in the fall of 2001.  Imagine the damage the amount he has now could create.

Here are some of the facts about each.



Smallpox is a contagious, serious and sometimes fatal infection prevented by a vaccination of live vaccinia virus.  Thirty percent of those seriously infected will die.


The use of the smallpox vaccine can prevent the disease.  If infected before getting inoculated, there is no treatment.  People infected with smallpox can be given antibiotics to help prevent a secondary bacterial infection.  The majority of people who have not been inoculated and get infected will recover, but 30 percent result in death.  Smallpox survivors likely will have scars covering most of their body, and some are left blind.


Live vaccinia virus is injected into the skin, and it takes up to three weeks for the virus to lose potency and for the body to create an immunity. 

After inoculation, special care must be taken for a 21-day incubation period. 

Common Reactions

Various reactions include swelling, itching and redness at the vaccination spot, as well as fever.


The vaccination site must be kept bandaged to prevent the virus from spreading to another part of the body or to another person.  When changing bandages special care must be taken, especially when discarding them.

Another precaution is after receiving the shot, one should not share clothing, towels or bedding with anyone else.  One should also wash hands thoroughly with soap or antiseptic solution whenever coming in contact with the vaccination site.

Between six to eight days after receiving the inoculation, it is imperative the recipient of the vaccine return to have the spot-checked in a medical facility.  This is to ensure the vaccine took and that the virus is working.

Special Considerations

People with low immune symptoms, people suffering from eczema and pregnant women should not be vaccinated. 


Out of 1 million inoculations, between 14 and 52 people generally have serious reactions, and one or two in 1 million died.



Taking one of three forms, anthrax is very infectious.  Inhalation is the most fatal of the three, gastrointestinal is the most rare, and cutaneous is the most common.  Symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, blisters and flu-like symptoms ranging from mild to severe can occur depending on the type of exposure. 

Cutaneous anthrax can result in death in about five to 20 percent of untreated cases.  Death is rare if given antibiotic therapy.

Gastrointestinal anthrax is very rare and 25 to 60 percent of cases result in death.

Inhalation anthrax has a 45 to 80 percent death rate once severe symptoms start, even when treated aggressively in the hospital.


In the early stages of exposure and symptoms, antibiotics can be taken to fight off the disease. If not treated immediately, once severe symptoms develop, 45 to 85 percent of those infected could die.


A series of six shots are given in the upper arm.  The first three are given in two-week intervals.  The next three shots are given at six, 12 and 18 months, followed by an annual booster.  The vaccine includes protein from inactive anthrax bacteria.  One in 100,000 vaccinations could have serious adverse reactions.

Common reactions

Redness and tenderness occur at the vaccination site in about one in three people.  The most serious reactions include swelling and fever.


Inoculations may cause various reactions in rare cases.  The reactions include fever, fatigue, and pain and redness in the arm.  No deaths and only rare serious side effects have been caused by the anthrax vaccination.