Accessibility links

Scientists Warn Against Public Smallpox Inoculations - 2003-08-12

A panel of scientists is warning the U.S. public to be cautious about receiving smallpox vaccine under a government plan to protect against bioterrorist attack. Because of the vaccine's potential health risks, the experts advise against inoculation unless certain strict conditions are met.

Experts advising the government warn against widespread smallpox immunization because they say the potential health risks outweigh the threat of a bioterrorist attack. The vaccine contains bits of live virus that can cause illness in some people and be transmitted to those around them.

The chairman of the expert panel, University of Pennsylvania medical professor Brian Strom, said the only people who should be vaccinated are those willing to be medically supervised, as in a research study. "We think in general, the ethical problems here are major and that in the general sense, it is not warranted for the normal public to get it," he said.

The Bush administration has stockpiled enough smallpox vaccine for all Americans and has advised local health officials nationwide on how to conduct a mass immunization campaign. While the government has not recommended that everyone in the country get the shot, it says it will provide one to any person who wants it.

The administration is requiring that half a million military personnel be vaccinated. It is also conducting a voluntary immunization program for several million medical and emergency workers who would respond to a terrorist smallpox attack. So far, however, only 38,000 volunteers ave come forward for it.

Dr. Strom and his fellow experts say vaccination should be only a small part of an overall smallpox preparation plan. "This is not a normal public health campaign and a normal vaccine where you want everybody in the public vaccinated. What you want is a targeted vaccination to meet the needs specifically of biopreparedness," he said. "Our goals are not to push numbers. They are to push preparedness."

The panel says work done so far has helped the United States prepare for a bioterrorist attack, buts adds that more must be done. It calls for registries of vaccinated health care workers, former military personnel, and other responders who can be mobilized quickly if a smallpox outbreak occurs. It also says U.S. public health officials should develop standards of preparedness that local communities can carry out.

But Dr. Strom said his group fears that the emphasis on smallpox is diverting resources from other important public health programs. "We think it is important that this shift into a long-term maintenance mode where smallpox fits into general public health preparedness rather than it being an isolated crisis type of situation where people are pulled off of other work to do the smallpox work."

The Strom panel concludes that a general smallpox vaccination campaign could strain the budgets of public health agencies.