Anticipating smallpox and monkeypox outbreaks: Complications of the smallpox vaccine

Brian C. Abrahams, David M. Kaufman

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


Background: The recent outbreak in the Midwest of monkeypox, as well as the continued fears of a terrorist-induced epidemic of smallpox, prompted the authors' review of the literature regarding past and current experiences with smallpox vaccination. The small-pox vaccine, which is highly effective in preventing the spread of both these orthopoxvirus infectious illnesses, might be administered to numerous health care workers and, in the event of a smallpox attack, millions of other citizens. However, vaccinees would be at risk for several vaccine-related neurologic complications. Review Summary: According to prior reports, neurologic complications have occurred in 2.5 per million US individuals, with the most common being postvaccinal encephalomyelitis (PVEM). In older children and adults, PVEM causes stupor and coma, seizures, paraparesis, and other neurologic and mental abnormalities, and, in 16% of cases, permanent neurologic sequelae. The overall mortality rate of neurologic complications is approximately 1.5 per million vaccinees. Risk factors for PVEM were age younger than 1 year and no previous smallpox vaccination, but not a prior episode of PVEM or other preexisting neurologic illnesses. Neither the current small-pox vaccination campaigns in Israel nor the one in the United States has had comparable complications, but the US campaign has been associated with myocarditis and myopericarditis. Conclusion: Although the potential neurologic complications of the smallpox vaccine must be weighed against the threat of monkeypox and smallpox, current experience with vaccination suggests it carries a very low risk of neurologic complications and does not lead to exacerbations of chronic neurologic illnesses.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)265-274
Number of pages10
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2004


  • Adverse reaction
  • Encephalitis
  • Encephalomyelitis
  • Epilepsy
  • Monkeypox
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Myasthenia gravis
  • Orthopoxvirus
  • Postvaccinal
  • Smallpox
  • Vaccine

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology


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