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House Democrats Call for Revitalizing U.S. Smallpox Vaccine Program

Calling federal efforts to vaccinate U.S. health care workers against smallpox “an embarrassing failure of government, with serious implications for homeland security,” Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday called on the Bush administration to reassess the smallpox bioterrorist threat and improve the U.S. ability to respond to such an attack (see GSN, Jan. 26).

Led by Representative Jim Turner (D-Texas), the Democratic members of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security released a 19-page report yesterday lambasting U.S. efforts to prepare for the possibility of a smallpox attack.

In December 2002, President George W. Bush announced a U.S. smallpox preparedness plan that included goals of vaccinating 500,000 health care workers in a first wave and millions of workers after that. To date, fewer than 40,000 workers have volunteered to receive the vaccine (see GSN, Dec. 12, 2003).

The report identifies three “key failures” for the vaccination program’s poor performance, including poor funding of public health agencies, delayed preparation of a plan to compensate volunteers who suffered vaccine side effects (see GSN, Dec. 15, 2003), and ineffective efforts to convince health care workers that smallpox is a serious threat.

“As a result of poor management and leadership of the vaccination program, the confidence and credibility in the government from vaccinated and unvaccinated health care workers, first responders and the public is being undermined,” the report says.

The report recommends several steps to improve U.S. readiness, starting with reassessing the threat of terrorists using smallpox as a weapon.

If that threat is reaffirmed as serious, then several steps are necessary, the report says:

*include the vaccination program into a larger smallpox preparedness program and provide more help to cities and states to assess their needs and implement changes;

*renew efforts to encourage health care workers to volunteer for the vaccine by describing the nature of smallpox threat and the compensation available to volunteers who suffer side effects;

*provide adequate resources for states and localities to implement the vaccination program without affecting other public health activities; and

*integrate the smallpox preparedness program into a larger strategy to respond to bioterrorist or other health emergencies (House Select Committee on Homeland Security minority office release, January 2004)