Fed plan against smallpox has slow beginning

Saturday, January 25, 2003

From staff, wire reports

Just four doctors rolled up their sleeves for smallpox shots Friday in a feeble start for the U.S. government's plan to vaccinate a half-million front-line health care workers across the nation in case of a bioterrorist attack.

Connecticut became the first state to take part in the vaccination program. The plan calls for 20 members of a "Genesis Team" to get the shots first and then fan out across the state to give the vaccine to other health professionals.

But the number of team members willing to get the shots dwindled amid reservations from hospitals, nursing unions and other professionals about the risk of deadly side effects from the vaccine.

By Friday, officials were expecting just nine volunteers, including a doctor to give the shots. The final turnout of four was a meager beginning to a plan touted as an important step toward protecting the public, but state officials said they expect to vaccinate the full team in the next two weeks.

State Health Commissioner Joxel Garcia said three nurses backed out after their union expressed reservations about the safety of the vaccine; one person withdrew for medical reasons; and the fifth wanted more time to make the decision.

"I'm feeling fine, thank you," Dr. Robert Fuller said after getting 15 rapid punctures from a two-pronged needle. The 38-year-old emergency room physician at the University of Connecticut Health Center added: "I know the risks."

Ready in Cape

Public health workers in Missouri could receive the vaccine next month.

Eight of 15 Cape Girardeau County public health nurses and nurse practitioners have volunteered to receive the vaccine.

Charlotte Craig, director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center, plans to get the vaccine. She said she and her nurses will assist Butler County public health workers in Poplar Bluff in giving the vaccine to hospital workers.

Medical workers at Cape Girardeau's two hospitals and at other hospitals around the state will be vaccinated, but not before the end of February, officials said.

The vaccinations will be given by public health workers in Poplar Bluff, and at sites in Springfield, St. Louis County, Columbia and Kansas City.

Craig said she expects "a couple dozen" health care workers from Cape Girardeau's two hospitals will be vaccinated.

The program is voluntary. "We don't tell anybody to get it," said Chuck Keppler, safety officer for Southeast Missouri Hospital.

Keppler declined to estimate how many Southeast Missouri Hospital employees will be getting the shot.

But about 15 medical workers at St. Francis Medical Center have volunteered to be vaccinated, said Marcie Abernathy, director of emergency services for the medical center and one of those who has volunteered.

The goal is vaccinate 5,000 to 8,000 emergency medical workers including doctors, nurses and security officers in Missouri, she said.

The vaccinations will take place at only five sites as a security precaution, officials said.

Craig said medical workers who have health problems have been instructed not to get the vaccine.

Modifications likely

Dr. Walt Orenstein, head of the National Immunization Program at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said modifications to the vaccine program will probably be needed. But there are no specifics yet.

"Until we begin the program and get some experience, it's very difficult to know what needs to be done," he said.

Routine vaccinations for smallpox in the United States stopped in 1972, but the idea was reintroduced in December by the government.

Twenty states so far have requested the vaccine for members of their smallpox response teams.

Experts say as many as 40 people out of every million vaccinated for the first time will face life-threatening reactions and one or two will die.

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