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CDC Backs Wider Smallpox Vaccination

Officials Expand Scope of Original Recommendations

WebMD Health News

Oct. 16, 2002 -- A CDC advisory panel today expanded its previous smallpox vaccination recommendations. Under the new plan, about half a million hospital workers would be inoculated, followed by 10 million emergency response workers, and finally, the general public, according to published reports.

This latest recommendation comes closer to the Bush administration's initial proposal to vaccinate the entire U.S. population.

Initially, the committee recommended the vaccine only for certain high-risk groups including doctors, nurses, infectious disease investigators, and law enforcement officials -- the "first responders" to bioterrorism.

Smallpox was declared eradicated worldwide more than 20 years ago, due largely, if not entirely, to wide-scale vaccination. Today, the virus is known to exist in only two places -- laboratories in Atlanta and Russia.

But since Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks, bioterrorism has become a terrifyingly real possibility. And now, with war looming in Iraq, our collective fear has come to a head. So has our need to prepare for the worst.

There is no effective treatment for smallpox. Though most infected people recover, the virus is deadly in about 30% of cases. But if given up to four days after exposure to the virus, the vaccine can lessen the severity of illness or even prevent it entirely, according to the CDC.

Based on additional study and feedback from experts, the CDC panel voted eight to one for the newer, more widespread vaccination plan. But according to dissenting committee member Paul Offitt, MD, of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, the risks of vaccination still outweigh the potential benefits.

"We're thinking of immunizing 500,000 people in a country for a disease that is still theoretical," he tells the Associated Press in a news release. "We haven't seen a case of smallpox on this planet for 25 years. If there's not a case of smallpox, we will be doing more harm than good."

That harm includes more than just side effects, which range from rashes to brain swelling. In fact, CDC officials expect two out of every 1 million people inoculated to die as a direct result of vaccination. In other words, if every American got vaccinated, 300-500 would die. The risk of side effects is greatest in children and people with certain immune system problems, including eczema and AIDS. -->

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