Hospital teams to get smallpox vaccine

Tuesday, December 17, 2002

Cape Girardeau's two hospitals are choosing the first medical workers in the area to receive the smallpox vaccine, the local start of a nationwide inoculation process that's prompting concerned residents to call their doctors.

St. Francis Medical Center and Southeast Missouri Hospital have until Jan. 7 to select response teams and submit members' names to the state Center for Emergency Response and Terrorism, that agency's director said.

The center also is calling for two or more workers at the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center to be vaccinated. Communicable disease coordinator Vicky McDowell, R.N., said that list isn't finalized, but she plans to get the vaccine due to her job requirements should smallpox be found here.

Federal counterterrorism officials are concerned the nation's enemies could use stored samples of highly contagious, deadly smallpox to infect Americans. With that uncertainty, plus President Bush's announcement he'll get the smallpox vaccine and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson's announcement he won't, many are calling their doctors for advice or even to make appointments to get vaccinated.

The short answer: There's not much information available yet, and the public can't get the vaccine yet.

New version in 2004

Dr. Charles Pewitt of Jackson Medical Center is telling his patients to make their decisions after the Food and Drug Administration approves a new, possibly safer form of the vaccine -- scheduled for early 2004. However, the old version could be available to the general population by summer.

"At this point, what I'm telling patients is there are a lot of side effects with the vaccine," Pewitt said. "I do not plan on getting the vaccine unless we see an absolute definite need. It's not as benign as some of the other vaccinations."

Dr. Connie Simmons, a pediatrician with Cape Girardeau Physician Associates, said she's received a dozen such inquiries a week for two months and sees spikes in concern tied to media coverage. Parents want to know if they should have their children vaccinated, and she tells them to wait for more information from the FDA and CDC because of the potential dangers.

The CDC estimates that of every million people vaccinated, one or two will die, 52 will have life-threatening illnesses and 1,000 will have serious reactions. The last routine smallpox vaccinations were given in 1972.

Local residents' opinions on the issue range from anxious to apathetic.

"Personally, it sounds like overkill," said Brian Lee of Cape Girardeau. "I think it's unnecessary and more paranoia than anything else."

Those who believe rural areas such as Cape Girardeau are somehow protected are misinformed, said Pam Walker, director of the Center for Emergency Response and Terrorism, a new agency housed in the state health department. She plans to be inoculated as soon as possible because her job will require going to the scene of infections.

"The issue with smallpox is it is so highly contagious and we travel so much," Walker said. "The connections with Cape Girardeau, should there be a case anywhere in America, would probably surprise all of us."

Volunteers screened

Both Cape Girardeau hospitals issued statements Monday that they'll cooperate with the Center for Emergency Response and Terrorism and meet the Jan. 7 deadline. Missouri Hospital Association vice president Becky Miller, who works with Southeast Missouri Hospital and St. Francis Medical Center on regulatory issues, said she hasn't heard of any hospitals having problems getting staff to volunteer for the teams.

Volunteers will be screened for any conditions that could make the vaccine dangerous for them, including skin conditions or weakened immune systems, before being confirmed as team members.

A press release from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the governor's office stated hospitals are being asked to pick three 15-member teams. Those teams will include physicians, nurses, emergency department and intensive care workers, dermatologists, infectious disease specialists, pediatric specialists, pulmonary specialists and hospital support workers such as those in security, housekeeping and personnel.

Once the local health department and hospitals select their response teams, team members will travel to Poplar Bluff for vaccinations. Walker said her agency wants to keep tight control over where the vaccines are available and who receives doses.

Staff writer Scott Moyers contributed to this report.

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