Sunday, October 19, 2003

Smallpox vaccination program flops 

George W. Bush's smallpox vaccination program hasn't been officially pronounced dead, but USA Today is reporting that the program has basically ceased. The plan was to vaccinate 450,000 health care workers so that they could respond to a bioterror attack. A second phase of the program would have vaccinated up to 10 million police, firefighters and other first responders.

But the program met with a weak response from the beginning. There have been no cases of smallpox on the planet since a 1977 case in Somalia. The smallpox vaccine is the riskiest, with side effects ranging from rash and discomfort at the vaccination site to death. Health care workers complained that they would not be adequately compensated in the event of injury or death. Major hospitals across the nation refused to administer the vaccine to their staffs in the absence of any actual cases--the vaccine can be administered up to four days after exposure--given the risk that the vaccine's live vaccinia virus, a cousin of smallpox, could be accidentally passed on to patients.

After reports in April of heart problems associated with the vaccination only a few health workers a week volunteered for the shot.

The CDC will now fold the program into a broader antibioterrorism plan. The Department of Homeland Security is claiming that enough first responders have been vaccinated to deal with a smallpox outbreak.

But the bottom line is that savvy health care workers refused to be panicked into taking a risky vaccine that could have harmed themselves or their patients. Smallpox is a difficult virus to weaponize and deliver. If there is an outbreak, look to state terrorism, not the usual bogeymen in caves.

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