Poll finds many Americans have bioterror concerns

WASHINGTON -- Three-fifths of Americans say they would want a smallpox vaccination if it were widely available, said an Associated Press poll that suggests continued nervousness about bioterrorism.

About half of the respondents say they are concerned about the threat of a smallpox attack and think last month's anthrax attacks are the beginning of an extended campaign, said the poll conducted for The AP by ICR of Media, Pa.

Some of those still concerned about bioterrorism say they generally are nervous because they do not know what's coming next.

"To me, now, anything can happen," said Michelle Hunt, a 50-year-old retail clerk from Boulder City, Nev. "If it's out there, it could happen. I try not to worry about it."

The U.S. government is stockpiling the smallpox vaccine in case of terrorist attacks, but has no plans to routinely vaccinate the general public. Smallpox vaccine is made with a live virus related to smallpox, so it can cause some very serious side effects. Experts estimate that if every American were vaccinated against smallpox, some 400 people would die from the vaccine.

A majority of Americans indicate they would get the vaccine if it were available, even after they are informed of the possible risks.

"Smallpox is incredibly contagious and they only have 15 million vaccinations," said 28-year-old Bradford Rubinoff of Tucson, Ariz. "If people would use anthrax against us, who's to say they wouldn't use smallpox?"

Asked if he would want to get the smallpox vaccination even though it carries some health risks, Rubinoff said, "Absolutely."

Small risk

Among the risks: About 3 in every 1 million people vaccinated would get encephalitis, which can cause permanent brain damage or death. Another 250 would get a smallpox-like rash that also can be fatal if not properly treated.

People with weak immune systems -- patients who have AIDS, cancer or organ transplants or are taking high-dose steroids -- are most at risk for the side effects, as are people with the skin condition eczema.