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Experts Say Civilian Smallpox Shots Not Needed

by Marina Malenic
Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON — Two former Bush administration advisers are no longer urging front-line U.S. health care workers to volunteer for smallpox vaccinations, even though they see no reduction in the threat from smallpox as a potential biological weapon (see GSN, July 14).

It is the first time officials connected to the Bush adminstration have publicly said that no further immunizations are necessary.

“We don’t need to vaccinate the first-responders,” Donald Henderson, a former senior Health and Human Services Department adviser, told Time magazine last month.

Federal officials have distributed smallpox vaccine supplies nationally in sufficient quantities to enable first responders and other emergency medical personnel to receive the inoculation in time to protect them following an attack, said Henderson, who ran the World Health Organization program that eradicated smallpox in the 1970s and is now a professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.

“The difference between now and where we were at 9/11, is that now we have a lot of vaccine, in a number of cities we have the capability to deal with an outbreak pretty quickly,” Henderson, who continues to advise Health and Human Services a part-time basis, told Global Security Newswire last week. “We are in a very different position,” he added.

“In an emergency we have the vaccine ready, and ready to move very quickly. Our first priority, the health care workers in emergency rooms that would be first in contact with the disease — 250,000 would fall into the category — could be vaccinated very quickly in case of an attack,” he said.

Two years ago, the Bush administration announced a smallpox vaccination program, with a target of inoculating 500,000 military personnel and 500,000 civilian health workers. The military program succeeded in meeting its goal and even surpassed it — more than 625,000 service members have received the vaccine — and the U.S. Defense Department last month expanded the effort to include all personnel deployed by U.S. Central Command and, for the first time, select units within U.S. Pacific Command (see GSN, June 30).

However, the civilian program never got off the ground due to concerns about the vaccine’s side effects, according to Jerome Hauer, a former Health and Human Services acting assistant secretary and director of the Response to Emergencies and Disasters Institute at George Washington University. While the administration encouraged millions of first responders and other medical professionals to volunteer for vaccinations (White House press release, Dec. 13, 2002), in the end fewer than 40,000 received the inoculation.

“I don’t know that there has been a huge policy reversal rather than that it just fell apart,” Hauer told Global Security Newswire last week.

Because no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq since the end of the war, Hauer added, there has been no impetus to continue smallpox vaccinations.

“Once the war ended and no WMD were found — no smallpox, no biological agents — at the end of the day the sense of urgency waned,” he said. “People felt there was no need to go through the risk of being vaccinated unless the threat became immediate,” he added.

“The sense of urgency by the first responder community also waned,” Hauer said. “Barring something new, it would be extraordinarily difficult to get first responders vaccinated,” he added.

However, there is good reason to believe that biological warfare programs using smallpox remain a threat, Henderson said.

“At this point, the same factors that rated smallpox as high as it was are still there,” he said. Hauer agreed. “We were concerned about smallpox in the hands of terrorists well before Iraq,” he said.

Henderson explained that in the early 1990s a group of Soviet “bioweaponeers” said that smallpox was “at the top of their list” of biowarfare agents under development.
“They admitted their intent to use smallpox in ICBMs and small bomblets for dispersal,” said Henderson, adding that some Soviet weapons scientists may have left those labs to work elsewhere (see GSN, Oct. 22, 2003).

“It’s hard to know who they are now working for,” he added.

Henderson said there are indications that other countries may be involved in such efforts as well.

“Soviet scientists at the time said that there had been activities with smallpox in North Korea,” he said.

“Whatever was going on or my have gone on in Iraq was not the only factor — we did not know anything more about Iraq than we did about Iran or Syria, for example,” he said. “It takes few people and not a lot of money to set up such a program. It’s not like nuclear work,” he added.