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Last Updated

24 Jan 2003

Source: Associated Press, January 24, 2003

Only 4 Get Conn. Smallpox Vaccinations

By NOREEN GILLESPIE, Associated Press Writer

HARTFORD, Conn. - Just four doctors rolled up their sleeves for smallpox shots Friday in a feeble start for the U.S. government's plan to vaccinate a half-million front-line health care workers across the nation in case of a bioterrorist attack.

Connecticut became the first state to take part in the vaccination program. The plan called for all 20 members of Connecticut's "Genesis Team" to get the shots Friday and then fan out across the state to give the vaccine to other doctors, nurses and other professionals.

But the number of team members willing to get the shots dwindled all week amid reservations from hospitals, nursing unions and other professionals about the risk of deadly side effects from the vaccine.

The turnout of just four volunteers was an embarrassing beginning to a plan touted as an important step toward protecting the public.

"I'm feeling fine, thank you," said Dr. Robert Fuller, one of the four who was injected. The 38-year-old emergency room physician added: "I know the risks."

Routine vaccinations for smallpox in the United States stopped in 1972, but the idea was reintroduced in December by the government. About 20 states have requested the vaccine for members of their smallpox response teams.

Experts say as many as 40 people out of every million vaccinated for the first time will face life-threatening reactions and one or two will die.

A union representing nurses at UConn Health Center recommended waiting until liability questions are resolved, saying it is unclear whether there is protection for people who get sick and miss work as a result of the vaccine, or for family members who might get sick through accidental exposure.

State lawmakers are working on legislation to clarify that workers' compensation is available to participants in the vaccine program and that health insurance cannot be denied for any adverse reaction.

The federal government has assumed some liability for the shots, but the protection applies only to negligence in manufacturing and administering the vaccine.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said he is concerned about opposition to the vaccinations. He said he is trying to ease workers' concerns and develop a plan to compensate people who suffer ill effects from the vaccine.

"Make no mistake: We can and must make the smallpox vaccination plan a reality," he said.

Besides Fuller, Richard Garibaldi, James Hadler and Marcia Trape also received the injections, delivered into their arms in 15 rapid punctures from a two-pronged needle. Hadler is the state epidemiologist; Garibaldi is chairman of medicine at UConn's hospital; Trape is clinical director of occupational and environmental medicine at UConn Health Center.

Nebraska, Vermont and Los Angeles County have received vaccine shipments already but have not yet started the vaccinations. The Los Angeles County health department expects to begin vaccinating its employees Wednesday.

"There's no rush here. We're doing it slowly and in a deliberate fashion," said Dr. Jonathan Fielding, the county public health director.

The first Vermont vaccinations could take place by the end of the month, while vaccinations will begin Feb. 10 in Nebraska.

The world's last natural case of smallpox occurred in Somalia in 1977. The last case in the United States was more than 50 years ago.