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THE VACCINE GUIDE: Bioterrorism Preparedness Goes Asunder

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Think bioterrorism is scary? Who would have thought that the counter measure — large scale smallpox vaccine programs — would turn out to be sinister too? This is a story of falling on your own sword. Or when bioterrrorism preparedness goes asunder.

The public health scare of smallpox vaccines is way up there in the top 10 Bush snafus of 2003. But except for New York Times editorials on the subject (ie: “Missing the Smallpox Goal,” May 12 2003) here and there, the media is mum about it. As a parent, or a citizen, or a teacher, what do you do when the remedy is perhaps as fatal as the disease? Break out the vaccine reference guides, and start checking the facts. Unfortunately, you may not like what you find out.

Who is BD?

“Almost 50 years ago, BD developed the first disposable syringes for mass delivery of the Salk polio vaccine” begins a full page ad in Scientific American. The ad shows a Depression-era photo of a white man in a white coat giving the small pox vaccine while some sad eyed, stricken-looking children wait their turn with rolled-up sleeves.

“Now [the ad continues], BD is partnering with governments worldwide to challenge the threats posed by bioterrorism. From the earliest civilizations through most of the last century, smallpox claimed the lives of untold millions. By 1980, this virus had been eradicated. Yet today, the threat of smallpox looms once again as a possible weapon in a bioterrorist attack.”

“And, [the chirpy ad copy goes on] in the United States, New Jersey has become the first sate in the nation to pilot the BD® Bio-Terror Preparedness Network, an innovative system for centralized tracking of smallpox vaccinations.”

This enthusiasm for so called “Bioterrorism Preparedness” was before people started dying from the smallpox vaccine. In March 2003, the Associated Press reported that three people died of heart attacks linked to the vaccine. To paraphrase, health experts began to investigate a possible link between the vaccine and heart problems that occurred in 17 people, including three fatalities. Two of those were health care workers in private hospitals. The third, announced by the Pentagon, was a 55-year-old man.

Caveat Emptor

Since then, most health professionals concluded that the risks of the smallpox vaccine greatly exceeded the immediate benefit and suggested taking precautions. The immunization program was greeted with cautious skepticism very early in the vaccine program (Jan. 2002), when health professionals warned against the vaccine, publishing articles at the New England Journal of Medicine and registering their concerns with the CDC. These days, even West Wing staff are unwilling to roll up their sleeves for team smallpox. John Marburger, Bush’s science advisor told SEED Magazine that he will not be getting a shot because “I am not a first responder. I don’t expect to come into contact with smallpox.”

Part of the problem may be with the efficacy of the vaccine. The smallpox vaccination is older than those polio syringes BD supplied. In the past 200 years, it hasn’t really changed. This is not a case of ‘it ain’t broke, so don’t fix it,’ either. The cowpox virus in the vaccine has become altered through many years of culture, and now has the name vaccinia virus. The vaccination procedure has been to pierce the skin and insert the live cowpox virus into the lesion, which sounds a touch medieval. Clearly this vaccine could use fine tuning before letting loose on the masses.

The Vaccine Guide

Dr. Randall Neufstaedter, OMD and author of The Vaccine Guide–Risks and Benefits for Children and Adults, recently adds to the consensus of opinion by saying “I do not recommend that people get the smallpox vaccine unless a local clinic can supply vaccinia immune globulin (VIG) in the event of severe adverse reactions to the vaccination.”

The Vaccine Guide’s recently published revised edition specifically addresses the threat of bioterrorism as well as the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act in the preface. Information on this Act and other warnings about the smallpox vaccine can be found at the CDC website.

In general, Dr. Neufstaedter’s risk assessment is off the CDC grid, and may call for other sources to give family vaccine decisions more balance. Still, Neustaedter’s assessment of the smallpox vaccine echoes the rest of the medical community, especially with regard to young children. For instance, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) advises against non-emergency use of smallpox vaccine in children younger than 18 years of age. More excerpts on the smallpox vaccine can be found in his book The Vaccine Guide.

In light of the resistance from the medical community, it makes you wonder about the real goals of this government immunization program. I suppose they never guessed that a scant few months later, the threat of a deliberate outbreak of smallpox would seem puny next to the threat from SARS or influenza or, god forbid, monkeypox. Now the big rush for a large-scale smallpox immunization program seems, well, kinda suspicious.

At the very least, with a vaccine reference guide and the CDC’s published information, you can start to connect the dots on your own. Dying for your country over a lousy shot is not something the government should recommend for millions of Americans. And that’s why the smallpox vaccine is one of the top 10 of Bush snafus of 2003. But then, the year’s only half over.

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About Jennie Rose