WASHINGTON (FInalCall.com)–Health care workers and major medical centers across the country are protesting President Bush’s plan to inoculate as many as 11 million civilian emergency workers with the controversial smallpox vaccine.
“President Bush’s smallpox plan puts hospital workers and their patients at unnecessary risk,” said Andrew L. Stern, president of the 1.5 million member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the nation’s largest health care organization.
At Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, officials explained that the risk of dangerous side effects from the vaccine and the possible transmission to others was greater than the chance of an attack with a virus that has not been seen since the 1970s.
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Emory Medical Center in Atlanta and the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics have expressed similar concerns.
The vaccine is risky for 1 in 6 Americans who are pregnant, suffer from eczema or other skin disorders, or whose immune systems are suppressed because of conditions like HIV, cancer, or transplant treatments, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
However, the president’s plan fails to provide free, confidential screening for those conditions before workers or the public are given the vaccine, say critics. It also does not do enough to safeguard vulnerable patients who could come into contact with the 500,000 hospital workers being asked to volunteer for the vaccine, they add.
“The American Medical Association (AMA) supports President Bush’s plan to offer voluntary smallpox vaccinations to a designated group of health care workers and emergency responders,” wrote Timothy T. Flaherty, M.D., AMA trustee, in a statement.
The president has said that his family would not be vaccinated but he would. He received his vaccine Dec. 21, according to published reports.
“He feels great,” said spokesman Adam Levine, the next day from Camp David, Maryland.
The president joined about 500,000 troops who were ordered to receive the inoculation. A senior immunization technician administered the president’s vaccination at Walter Reed Army Medical Center under the supervision of the White House doctor and its medical unit staff, according to a White House statement.
The risk of smallpox
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), smallpox is a serious, contagious, and sometimes fatal infectious disease. There is no specific treatment for it, and the only prevention is vaccination.
The name smallpox came from the Latin word for “spotted” and refers to the raised bumps that appear on the face and body of an infected person caused by the variola virus.
Smallpox was eradicated after a successful worldwide vaccination program. The last known case in the United States was in 1949. The last naturally occurring case in the world was in Somalia in 1977. After the disease was eliminated from the world, routine vaccination against smallpox was eliminated, too.
“Why should people be vaccinated against a disease that no longer exists?” asked Dr. Abdul Alim Muhammad, minister of health and human services for the Nation of Islam.
“It only exists in the labs of the U.S and in Russia. There are reports though, that the U.S. gave smallpox, anthrax and West Nile virus to the Iraqis,” he said.
The CDC said that except for laboratory stockpiles in Moscow and Atlanta, the variola virus has been eliminated. However, in the aftermath of the events of September and October 2001, there is heightened concern that the variola virus might be used as an agent of bioterrorism. For this reason, the U.S. government is taking precautions for dealing with a smallpox outbreak, officials maintain.
President Bush has said that there was “no information that a smallpox attack is imminent.” But he decided to call for the vaccination of health care workers, emergency responders and military personnel as a precautionary move necessitated by new potential threats.
The risks of being vaccinated
“The smallpox vaccine is one of the most dangerous vaccines,” said Dr. Muhammad
“It can also spread mad cow disease because it is produced from cow tissue. The side effects can be severe. It can cause tenderness at the injection site, swelling, high fever, nausea, vomiting and seizures. The effects may also require hospital treatment,” he observed.
Experts say approximately 1 in 3 people vaccinated will feel too sick to work or provide proper patient care for one or more days. As many as 1 in 10 could experience life-threatening reactions such as encephalitis, meningitis and viral pneumonia.
According to Dr. Muhammad, another crucial concern is that once people are vaccinated “they become infectious for 21 days and could potentially spread the disease during this period.”
“People who volunteer to receive the smallpox vaccine need to know about the possible complications associated with this vaccine to assess whether or not they want to be immunized,” CDC director Dr. Julie Gerberding told reporters.
“For instance, those who choose to receive the vaccine need detailed instructions on caring for the smallpox vaccination site to avoid transmitting the vaccine virus to themselves or others, including family and household members.”
People who are injured by childhood immunizations can get help through the Vaccine Injury Compensation Fund, but no such system will be available for people receiving the smallpox vaccine.
After health workers receive the vaccine, President Bush’s plan calls for millions of firefighters, police, and other “first responders” to be vaccinated. In about a year, the vaccine will be offered to the public.
“No one should get this vaccine without getting screened and understanding the risk for themselves and their family,” said Mr. Stern. “But under this plan, only people who can afford to pay for the tests or whose insurance might cover it will be protected.”
European researchers from Germany and France are working on a test to determine the effectiveness of the smallpox vaccine. They reported in November, at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that they had discovered a test that can among other things determine if a person actually develops defenses against smallpox after being vaccinated.
Who profits from the vaccine?
“This vaccine is all about balancing the budgets of the pharmaceutical companies,” said Dr. Phillip Valentine, founder of the Self Healing Education Temple. “America is getting healthier. The alternative healing movement is predominated by White practitioners and most of those seeking natural healing are Black. This is all about generating money for the drug companies.”
“There isn’t a smallpox problem unless the U.S. is the one about to start it,” he said.
The president’s plan and Congress have protected drug companies who produce the vaccine from liability. However, the administration has refused to ensure that people who receive the vaccine do not face loss of income if they cannot work as a result.
Pharmaceutical companies will also enjoy an additional boost in sales and profits due to the development of The Model Emergency Health Powers Act (MEHPA), say critics.
According to opponents of the smallpox vaccine program, the act was introduced in every state legislature and can be identified by replacing “Model” with the state’s name. In Tennessee, for example, it is known as TEHPA (House Bill 2271/Senate Bill 2392) and is currently being reviewed in committee.
Under the act, the governor or state appointee, after a declaration of a “public health emergency” (which could be
West Nile, tuberculosis, smallpox, anthrax, plague, etc.) has the power to require individuals to be vaccinated, or be charged with a felony if they refuse and quarantined, critics contend.
It also empowers officials to mandate specific treatment, they add.
Further, the state is allowed to seize any property, including real estate, “deemed necessary to handle the emergency, and the property could be destroyed or retained without any compensation for the owner,” according to a report published in the Memphis Flyer newspaper.
State governments would be solely responsible for all medicinal availability, distribution of vaccines and would be allowed to perform tests and/or collect specimens from any living person within the state, observers said.
In addition, state officials are entitled to deputize any person or business into state service; impose rationing, price controls, quotas or even transportation regulations. Any pre-existing law believed to interfere with the emergency would be suspended, they add.
The bill came to birth just 18 days after September 11, 2001, but had been in the planning since a July 23, 2001 hearing before the House Committee on Government Reform. This hearing followed a war game staged by the federal government, in Georgia and Oklahoma, and called Dark Winter.
The Dark Winter exercise released simulated strains of smallpox and anthrax in communities in Georgia and Oklahoma. State governments consolidated their efforts with the federal government to ensure the strains would not spread and to determine how well each agency would respond in crisis. The experiment, by the government’s own admission, was a failure.
Current Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma played himself in the exercise, former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, played the role of the president. Gov. Keating in his testimony, upon acknowledgement of the failure, urged the committee “not to federalize everything.”
“In the evolution of warfare, arrows were countered with shields; swords with armor; guns with tanks; and now biological weapons must be countered with medicines, vaccines, and surveillance systems,” argued Sen. Nunn, during his testimony.