Being informed about smallpox is important

Saturday, December 21, 2002

Considering the formidable amount of news space in newspapers and number of hours on television and radio devoted to smallpox information, a survey due out in the January issue of the New England Journal of Medicine is baffling.

Harvard School of Public Health researchers found that, of 1,006 randomly selected adults surveyed:

Seventy-eight percent believe smallpox can be cured.

Twenty-five percent said it was likely they would die from a vaccination.

Sixteen percent believe the federal government has enough vaccine for everyone.

The truth is smallpox has been eradicated for decades. The last routine vaccinations in this nation were given in 1972. The last naturally occurring case of the disease was in Somalia in 1977, contracted by a man who faked getting the inoculation to avoid the needle pricks.

Understandably, many Americans have forgotten the facts about the disease and the vaccination.

However, it is vital that everyone become informed. Counterterrorism officials say there's a good chance Iraq could use stored samples of the disease against our troops or perhaps even against civilians.

Within months, the general public will have the option of receiving vaccinations. While only one out of a thousand people vaccinated would have any sort of unusual reaction at all, that's enough to warrant some personal research and educated decision-making.

Even now, there are Southeast Missouri residents gearing up to receive inoculations.

Health-care workers are being asked to volunteer for smallpox response teams at St. Francis Medical Center, Southeast Missouri Hospital and the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center. And military personnel are required to get the shots.

Here are the facts: There is no cure for smallpox. About a third of those who contract this disease will die.

However, only one in a million people vaccinated against smallpox will die due to the vaccine -- and new forms of the vaccine with fewer risks are being developed. Vaccination within three days of exposure almost eliminates the risk of contracting the disease and, at a minimum, greatly reduces the severity.

The federal government says there is enough smallpox vaccine for everyone right now should there be an outbreak. However, the FDA is reviewing a revamped vaccine that is slated for approval by early 2004.

The Southeast Missourian will continue publishing stories on the issue as it develops. In the meantime, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has an outstanding Web site on the subject at www.cdc.gov.

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