Limited smallpox vaccination get recommended by panel

Friday, June 21, 2002

The Washington Post

ATLANTA -- A panel of scientific experts that advises the federal government Thursday recommended that a small number of health-care workers in each state -- perhaps 20,000 Americans in all -- be vaccinated against smallpox.

"We had to base our decisions on what we were told, which is that the risk of an attack is low," said Natalie Smith, a California state public health official and a member of the 15-member Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

The advice, if accepted by the Bush administration, would expand use of the vaccine for the first time in nearly 30 years. However, it represents the most limited of several options the panel considered for incorporating smallpox vaccination into the country's defense against biological terrorism.

The choice reflects the panel's belief that the risk of an attack employing smallpox virus is too small to justify the many complications that would arise from widespread vaccination.

Currently, only scientists who handle the smallpox virus are vaccinated. The last human case of smallpox occurred in 1978, and the microbe is known to exist only in a few laboratory freezers. However, some experts believe samples of the virus may have gotten into the hands of bioterrorists or hostile governments.

The decision also affirms a belief that the strategy used to eradicate smallpox in the 1970s would work in the event of a bioterror attack. That strategy, requires that people exposed to smallpox virus, and their immediate contacts, be vaccinated, observed, and quarantined if they become ill.

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