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Last Updated

26 Feb 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, February 25, 2003


County's First Volunteers Receive Smallpox Vaccine

Ten health-care workers are inoculated as part of a Bush administration anti-terrorism plan. But unions and hospitals are still reluctant.

By Sandra Murillo, Times Staff Writer

Ten Ventura County health-care workers received smallpox vaccinations on Monday, the first local volunteers in the president's plan to safeguard against bioterrorism.

The county hopes to administer at least 125 smallpox shots to emergency-room doctors, nurses and other health-care workers on a volunteer basis by April. It has received 300 doses of the vaccine so far out of 800 requested, said Bruce Bradley, a spokesman for the county's Public Health Department.

While the county had no trouble drumming up three officials willing to endure needle jabs in front of a handful of reporters and photographers, the plan has been somewhat of a tough sell nationally. Many hospitals and unions are leery of the inoculation program, which provides no financial coverage for those who may become sick or die from side effects of the vaccine.

In Ventura County, some nurses unions and hospitals have been reluctant to administer the vaccine out of concern that they might be liable if an employee became sick. Simi Valley Hospital officials, for example, say they are still considering all the risks and benefits.

But Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, Los Robles Regional Medical Center in Thousand Oaks and St. John's Medical Center in Oxnard will participate.

"We thought it was the responsibility of the hospital to protect the people who will be the first line of defense," said Michael Bakst, executive director of Community Memorial Hospital.

Smallpox, highly contagious and potentially fatal, was eradicated worldwide in the 1970s, and the United States ended routine vaccination against the disease in 1972. But the Bush administration fears that terrorists and hostile countries might be hoarding stockpiles of the virus.

The vaccination of up to 450,000 emergency health workers nationwide is part of President Bush's three-phase plan. In the next phases, the vaccine will be offered to firefighters, police officers and paramedics, and finally to the public.

About one to two people per million die of complications caused by the vaccine. As many as 52 per million experience life-threatening complications, including encephalitis, while many more suffer reactions such as serious rashes.

On Monday, reporters and photographers surrounded three health workers as they became the first in the county to prepare for a smallpox outbreak. They'd considered the vaccine's dangers, they said, and decided that they did not outweigh the benefits.

"It's on the one hand the riskiest vaccine we have available for use today, but when you consider it, the risks are one in a million," said Robert Levin, the county's health officer.

For Barry Fisher of the Ventura County Emergency Services Agency, getting the vaccine was about sending a message.

"We're asking people to volunteer, and I didn't feel right if we weren't willing to do it ourselves," he said.