Days after President Bush outlined his plan to take a pre-emptive strike against the possibility that terrorists would use smallpox as their next weapon of choice against Americans, emergency medical
providers have refused to participate amid the risk of side effects and the threat of liability issues.
“At this point in time, the risk of the vaccine far outweighs the benefit of getting the vaccine,” Dr. Carlos del Rio of Emory University told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Del Rio backs the decision by his staff of emergency workers at Grady Memorial Hospital not to roll up their sleeves.
Unions representing health-care workers also condemn the plan.
Smallpox is a deadly but preventable disease. Most Americans who are 34 or older had a smallpox vaccination when they were children. By 1972, the risk of smallpox was so remote that routine
vaccinations were discontinued in the United States.
In 1980, the World Health Organization declared smallpox had been completely eradicated. Since
then, there have been no natural cases of the disease anywhere in the world.
“We know, however, that the smallpox virus still exists in laboratories. And we believe that regimes hostile to the United States may possess this dangerous virus,” Bush announced last week, but stressed the government has no information on any imminent threat.
The president detailed a two-tiered strategy which starts with mandatory vaccinations for 510,000 military personnel who serve in “high-risk parts of the world.” Next in line would be 440,000 civilian health workers in hospital emergency rooms and then the first responders – police, firefighters
and EMTs. The administration recommends at least half of 10 million first responders be vaccinated.
Plans for the first wave of vaccinations have been drawn up by every state. The vaccination program
will begin in late January and end four months later.
The smallpox plan for troops comes as the government still weathers controversy over its anthrax
WorldNetDaily reported, hundreds of military personnel refused that mandatory vaccine. This after, some 100,000 Persian Gulf War veterans got sick with a still-unexplained syndrome many suspect has to do with vaccines they were given and the possible exposure to chemical or biological weapons.
“As commander in chief, I do not believe I can ask others to accept this risk unless I am willing to do the same. Therefore, I will receive the vaccine along with our military,” Bush said.
Will the Department of Health and Human Services secretary be inoculated?
“Absolutely not,” retorted Tommy Thompson on CNN’s Late Edition. “The president is doing it because he is the commander in chief. And he believes that if he is ordering his troops, the troops of
America, the armed forces, to get this vaccination, he should do it as well. He’s doing it as the commander in chief. … I am not, and I would strongly recommend other people in the Cabinet not request
a vaccination because I do not believe it is necessary or it should be taking place,” he continued.
According to Thompson, a vaccine will likely be licensed in the coming months but the government would not be recommending the general public get the vaccination before early 2004.
The risk of suffering adverse side effects from the vaccine are deemed greater than the risk of getting
infected from a terror attack. Unlike other vaccines, smallpox is a live virus.
For every 1 million vaccinations, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, there will be one to two deaths. Fourteen to 52 other individuals could have life-threatening diseases such as encephalitis, or swelling of the brain. And then up to 900 others would suffer less
severe effects that range from rashes and fevers to progressive swelling and scarring.
People who are immune-suppressed, have cancer or are taking cancer treatments and individuals who have eczema or other atopic pharmaceutical problems are urged not to even consider getting inoculated.
A recent government study of 200 healthy young adults found one-third missed at least one day of work or school, 75 had high fevers, and several were put on antibiotics because physicians worried that their blisters signaled a bacterial infection.
Tony Fauci, director of the NIH’s National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told the Houston Chronicle that when he speaks at public meetings, about 60 percent of people initially say they want the vaccine. After he shows slides of its side effects the number of those who say they want the
shot drops to 15 percent to 20 percent.
Andrew Stern, president of the 1.5 million-member Service Employees International Union decries the “unnecessary risk” posed for hospital workers and their patients under Bush’s plan.
“No one should get this vaccine without getting screened and understanding the risk for themselves and their family. But under this plan, only people who can afford to pay for the tests or whose insurance might cover it will be protected,” he said in a statement.
Thompson also stressed the need for screening, noting that everyone who volunteers for the vaccine will need to fill out a questionnaire.
“We expect that monitoring of the safety of this vaccine will be exemplary,” Dr. Julie Gerberding, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told reporters in a telephone briefing.
Georgia’s health director put a positive light on Grady Memorial Hospital’s refusal to participate in the plan.
“I am not concerned. I think it’s a reflection of the fact that we have done our job in making people realize that this vaccination is voluntary,” Dr. Kathleen Toomey told the Journal-Constitution. “We are not strong-arming them in any way.”
According to Toomey, hospitals have expressed concern that recently vaccinated people pose a risk
in wards full of patients with weak immune systems.
“We are hearing about issues of liability for vaccine injury, and issues of workmen’s compensation – in the rare but possible event of a complication, how are the hospitals going to pay?” she asked.