Smallpox vaccine: Problems and prospects

Gregory A. Poland, John M. Neff

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


Smallpox justifiably is feared because of its morbidity and mortality. Widespread population-level susceptibility to smallpox exists, and the only effective tool against the virus is a live, attenuated vaccine that is highly reactogenic and controversial. A significant minority of the population has contraindications that prevent preexposure use of this vaccine. Newer, safer, and equally immunogenic vaccines must be developed and licensed. Several live, attenuated vaccines are in clinical trials. Although these vaccines may prove to be less reactogenic, they still may not be administered safely to a significant portion of the population because they contain live, attenuated viruses. Newer vaccines will be needed if routine preexposure vaccination is to be instituted universally. The idea of a subunit or peptide-based vaccine is appealing, because it obviates potential safety concerns. It may be possible to use a more-attenuated, live vaccine strain for a large segment of the population on a preexposure basis and accept the morbidity and mortality that would result from its use on a postexposure basis, if necessary. The need for widespread population-level protection against variola infection is apparent. The use of the new biology tools to predict or define who might experience serious reactions to the smallpox vaccine and why these reactions occur is an area ripe for additional research. The reason why an individual develops postvaccinal encephalitis remains unknown, and the development is unpredictable and untreatable. In the future, if the mechanism behind such adverse events is defined, it may be possible to screen persons who are likely to experience such events. Although the authors remain proponents for use of the vaccine in alignment with the CDC vaccination program and recommendations, the previous concerns indicate that new knowledge must be gained and shared. Further research on attenuated vaccines and nonliving or peptide vaccines with equal efficacy should remain the goal, as it is apparent that smallpox vaccine once again will become part of the vaccinologist's and public health official's armamentarium in the decades to come.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)731-743
Number of pages13
JournalImmunology and Allergy Clinics of North America
Issue number4
StatePublished - Nov 2003

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Immunology and Allergy
  • Immunology


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