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Smallpox Vaccination Program Stalls

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Oct. 22--Last year, the federal government rolled out a plan to inoculate millions of health-care workers against smallpox.

But those plans have stalled. Many health-care facilities are reluctant to vaccinate employees against the disease, fearing health risks, including cardiac arrest.

None of Northeastern Pennsylvania's three major acute-care facilities has inoculated its workers since the program was created in December.

The Bush administration unveiled the plan to vaccinate a half-million military personnel and 10 million health-care workers as a protection against potential terrorism.

Smallpox, a potentially fatal disease declared eliminated more than 20 years ago, was identified as a possible weapon for terrorists.

Under the plan, hospitals would voluntarily create a "first response" team of health-care workers who would be vaccinated in case of a public smallpox threat.

The vaccine -- which contains a live, weakened form of the smallpox virus -- poses some health risks, and most health-care facilities have chosen to wait until there is a smallpox threat, before getting vaccinated. Smallpox vaccinations are effective within four days of contact with the virus, said Health Department spokesman Richard McGarvey.

The department has vaccinated 282 people statewide -- with about one-third of the vaccinations coming from health department staff members. The department has not inoculated anyone since August, according to the state.

Some vaccinated workers in other states experienced a swelling of the heart or cardiac arrest, McGarvey said.

"Certainly there were some concerns, even in the beginning, with this particular vaccine," McGarvey said. "We didn't get a lot of volunteers."

The Wyoming Valley Health Care System put together a "first responder" team of six employees, but none has been inoculated, officials there said.

"I think most people felt that the side effects were much too much to consider," said Dr. Thomas Campbell, the system's chief medical officer. "We didn't see the need to follow through."

Reports of potential heart problems "sort of tempered people's zeal on this whole thing," said Dr. Robert Brown, chief of infectious diseases for Wilkes-Barre General Hospital, part of the Wyoming Valley Health Care System.

The Geisinger Health System and Mercy Health Partners also decided not to inoculate workers, officials of both systems said.

"The program never really got started," said Mark Davis, a Geisinger spokesman. "The weapons of mass destruction never really materialized."

The Cato Institute, a Washington D.C.-based public policy research group, has called for a greater push to develop the smallpox vaccination program.


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(c) 2003, The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pa. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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