The first shipment of smallpox vaccine arrived in Minnesota last week. On Tuesday, 4,500 doses showed up at the Minnesota Health Department as part of President George W. Bush’s initiative to vaccinate half a million health workers. As of Monday, fewer than 800 people nationwide had been vaccinated for smallpox. In Connecticut, just four people volunteered to be vaccinated. Twenty-four of Minnesota’s 66 eligible hospitals declined to participate. Across the nation, turnout rates have generally been low.
The Bush administration’s plan on smallpox is short-sighted because it focuses on one threat while neglecting others. A myriad of biological components can be used against the United States. They include the deadly Ebola virus, the hard-to-remedy sarin, the inexpensive cyanide and the easily spreadable ricin. Ricin, in fact, is one of the world’s deadliest toxins and has already been linked to both Iraq and al-Qaida. Meanwhile, a humble soup of anthrax, pathogens and poisons remain unaddressed.
The narrow-minded focus on smallpox without providing additional funding has left states vulnerable.
Minnesota has diverted funding from programs that address radiological or chemical terrorism. A program to prepare health workers to handle bio-terrorism has been put on hiatus. Initially, the Bush administration estimated costs per smallpox vaccination to be $16. A more realistic estimate is between $200-$400.
Smallpox vaccination itself poses a risk. Unions in California, Texas and Massachusetts have advised nurses not to participate because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has failed to address issues such as liable compensation, potential medical complications and provide a standard administration doctrine. Complications associated with administering the vaccine are well-documented. Researchers have attributed life-threatening side effects to the vaccine. It causes about two deaths out of a million vaccinations. According to health professionals, possibly 30 percent of the population should abstain from being vaccinated because of weak immune systems or eczema. Nonvaccinated persons are also at risk and can become ill through close contact with a vaccinated person. Granted, all medical procedures involve risk but those risks should be minimized as much as possible.
Growing numbers of Americans are becoming skeptical to cries of war, hysteria and mandates. The Bush administration’s seemingly blind “sky is falling” approach to homeland security will only aid cynicism. The United States has known for years which subversive entities have access to smallpox. As for Minnesota, pre-emptive smallpox vaccinations seem unnecessary due to regional response centers which can vaccinate Minnesota’s 4.9 million people within a week.
Currently, the United States is an egg without a shell, and the populace is susceptible to biological terrorism. Yet, this does not justify reckless proclamations. Undoubtedly, smallpox is a threat. But that threat is no more urgent than other known forms of biological terrorism. The United States must gauge the risks at hand and deal with each accordingly.