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Last Updated

20 Feb 2003

Source: New York Times, February 20, 2003

Hoping to Set an Example, Mayor Gets Smallpox Vaccination


Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg received a smallpox vaccination yesterday, administered in his ceremonial office at City Hall.

In the face of widespread resistance to the nationwide vaccination program, the mayor said he was setting an example for New York City health care workers who are considering getting the shot.

"Even though we are not requiring any city employees to receive a smallpox vaccination, many potential first responders will choose to do so, and I don't want them to take any risks that I would not take myself," the mayor said in a prepared statement.

The mayor and five health department workers were among the first of thousands of health and public safety workers who are expected to be voluntarily vaccinated against smallpox by the end of May, according to health department officials. The smallpox vaccine has not been administered in New York City since 1972; there are no plans to vaccinate the general public.

The mayor said New Yorkers should feel assured, not alarmed, by what he said was the city's attempt to protect the public.

The city's vaccine program stems from a federal program, announced in mid-December, that calls for up to 500,000 health care workers nationwide to be vaccinated. In a second phase, 10 million more health care workers, firefighters, police and ambulance workers are scheduled to get the vaccine.

But most health care workers throughout the country have declined the vaccine, with many unions discouraging their members from participating.

As of yesterday, the government had shipped 265,000 doses of vaccine, but only 4,213 people had been vaccinated.

Health care workers have said they fear dangerous side effects, or that they could accidentally infect patients or others with the vaccinia virus. Further, many people are likely to miss a day of work because of sore arms and fever, the most common side effects.

When it was last used in the 1960's, the smallpox vaccine caused up to 52 life-threatening complications and two deaths for every million vaccinations.

Many infectious disease experts say that the risks are most likely higher now because there are more people whose immune systems have been compromised by AIDS, organ transplants and other medical conditions.

"This has been an exceptionally controversial issue within the health care arena," said Dr. Bruce S. Ribner, an associate professor of medicine at the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, who is an expert on smallpox. Dr. Ribner said that the rate of serious complications is anywhere from one to five per million vaccinations and that many experts believe it would be equally effective to wait for the first case of smallpox before vaccinating civilians.

"I've got to admit, I lean on that side," he said. "It makes a lot of sense."