Health chief: No smallpox shot for me
Physician Chuck Johnson saw one of the world’s last cases of smallpox in 1974, when a child sick with the disease was brought to a clinic in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where Johnson worked as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Johnson, now the health officer for Nevada County, had received a smallpox vaccination when he joined the Peace Corps.
But Johnson plans to skip it this time, following President Bush’s Dec. 13 announcement of a mass inoculation program for the viral disease. Although smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1977, it is now feared that it may be used as a weapon by Iraq or terrorists.
“My personal feelings are that without the existence of a case of smallpox in the world . . . it would be more prudent to wait,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of doctors I know of who are not … getting immunized.”
The smallpox vaccination is mandatory for about 500,000 military personnel. It will soon be made available to 10.5 million civilian emergency health-care workers and public safety workers, and finally, in the spring or summer, to the public.
But the vaccine – which hasn’t been offered in the United States since 1972 – can have significant side effects, Johnson said.
It uses live cowpox virus, which leaves a sore and a distinctive, dime-sized scar on the recipient’s arm. The live vaccine can spread from the sore, for example, when the recipient touches it and gets the live virus on his or her fingers. The vaccination can then cause problems such as encephalitis in the recipient or others.
Johnson cited figures estimating that for every 100 million vaccinations, the vaccine would cause between 100 and 400 deaths and 2,500 cases of potentially fatal side effects.
“A lot of people are just going to say, ‘This is not worth it,'” Johnson predicted.
Also, if a smallpox outbreak ever occurs, the vaccine can be administered after people are exposed. It is very effective in preventing the disease within the first four days after exposure, Johnson said.
Gary Cooke, spokesman for Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital in Grass Valley, said that the hospital is deciding which physicians, emergency room personnel and other employees could potentially get the vaccine.
“I want to stress that it is a voluntary program,” Cooke said. Hospital employees won’t be required to get vaccinated, he said.
So far, two big hospitals, in Atlanta, Ga., and Richmond, Va., have said they would not be participating in the program.
Johnson said it is not certain when the vaccine will be made available for local health-care workers, Johnson said. “Everything is in a state of flux, so we don’t know exactly when everything’s going to happen,” he said.
Steve Kohler, spokesman for the California Highway Patrol, said CHP officers are scheduled to receive vaccinations at the same time as health- care workers.
But “the likelihood is we would not make it mandatory for our officers because it’s a collective bargaining issue. The details will have to be worked out with the union,” Kohler said.
President Bush ordered roughly half a million U.S. troops in high-risk parts of the world to receive mandatory smallpox vaccinations.
Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld have said that they themselves also will be inoculated.
The president said the vaccine will be available to the general public in late spring or early summer, though he stressed that it is not recommended for most people. That includes pregnant women, people with eczema and those with weakened immune systems.
A national survey last week revealed that huge numbers of Americans have serious misconceptions about smallpox vaccine.
– The Associated Press
contributed to this report.
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