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WASHINGTON - AP -- President Bush on Friday ordered members of the U.S. military serving in high-risk areas to take the smallpox vaccine and said he will be inoculated as well. "Our government has no information that a smallpox attack is imminent, yet it is prudent to prepare for the possibility that terrorists who kill indiscriminately would use disease as a weapon," Bush said.
He said the vaccines will be made available to civilian emergency workers, but strongly suggested the general public not take the inoculations, which come with health complications.
Bush said his own family would not be vaccinated.
"As commander in chief, I do not believe I can ask others to accept this risk unless I am willing do to the same," Bush said. "Therefore, I will receive the vaccine along with our military."
The vaccinations are precautionary and "not a response to any information concerning imminent danger," Bush said.
"Given the current level of threat and the inherent health risks of the vaccine, we have decided not to initiate a broader program," he said.
"Neither my family nor my staff will receive the vaccine because our health and national experts do not believe the vaccines are necessary for the general public," Bush said.
The deadly disease, eradicated 22 years ago, is inspiring new dread as a terror weapon.
By 2004, when there will be enough licensed vaccine for every American, the administration plans to have a process by which any American without disqualifying conditions can get it.
Educating the public about the vaccine — its risks vs. benefits — will be a major focus.
Bush directed some 500,000 military personnel and civilian defense workers heading to southwest Asia — an area that includes Afghanistan and Iraq — to get vaccinated within weeks.
Bush also asked that for the sake of the country's safety, emergency medical workers and state teams that would respond first to a smallpox attack get vaccinated. That group numbers about 450,000.
People who want the vaccine can currently get an unlicensed version through a clinical trial process.
Among those who shouldn't get it are people with compromised immune systems, including cancer patients, organ transplant recipients and people with HIV; pregnant women; and people with a history of eczema.
Smallpox was declared wiped out in 1980, but experts fear that it could be used by hostile nations or terrorist groups in an attack. Intelligence experts believe that four nations, including Iraq, have unauthorized stocks of the virus.
Bush deliberated for months, weighing the dangers of the disease against the risks associated with the vaccine.
Based on studies from the 1960s, experts estimate that 15 out of every 1 million people vaccinated for the first time will face life-threatening complications, and one or two will die. Reactions are less common for those being revaccinated.
Using these data, vaccinating the nation could lead to nearly 3,000 life-threatening complications and at least 170 deaths.
But the administration concluded that the government could not make the vaccine available to some people and not others who want it.
Routine smallpox vaccinations ended in the United States in 1972, meaning nearly half the population is without any protection from the virus. Health officials aren't sure whether those vaccinated decades ago are still protected from the disease.
The Defense Department may meet some resistance in vaccinating all military members, if its experience with the anthrax vaccine is any indication. Some military personnel believed the anthrax vaccine caused health problems, and hundreds were forced from the armed forces after refusing to take it.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)