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Last Updated

09 Apr 2003

Source: Newsday, April 9, 2003

Smallpox Vaccination Resumes

State restarts with caution

By Delthia Ricks, STAFF WRITER

New York State is resuming its smallpox vaccination program following a brief hiatus, one of two states to restart inoculations this week after more than a dozen suspended the campaign in the wake of three heart attack deaths two weeks ago.

Even though the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines for volunteers who plan to roll up their sleeves, federal health officials are still studying the deaths and several other cardiac ailments in vaccine recipients. Heart attack has not been linked by federal health officials to the vaccine.

"We tend to be cautious and conservative in our approach," Kristine Smith, spokeswoman for the state health department, said yesterday, referring to the state's response to the vaccination program. New York was the first state to postpone vaccinations following reports of heart disorders among civilian and military recipients. California quickly followed suit, suspending its smallpox vaccination program. A spokeswoman for that state's health department in Sacramento said inoculations resumed yesterday.

Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Vermont and Washington state have yet to restart their programs.

President George W. Bush announced the campaign in December as part of an Office of Homeland Security plan to protect the country against bioterror. The hope was to have more than 400,000 health care workers vaccinated against the disease by early April. Instead, slightly more than 29,584 people have gotten the shots, according to the CDC's latest count.

Smallpox was eradicated more than 25 years ago. The Bush administration believes the virus may be in the hands of rogue governments.

"We were in fact awaiting specific written guidance from CDC to support their initial advisory," Smith said, referring to new restrictions that bar volunteers with a history of heart disease or who have at least three cardiac risk factors. Anyone who smokes, has high cholesterol, diabetes, high blood pressure or any previous ailment can no longer volunteer for the live-virus vaccination.

Health officials, federal medical experts and their counterparts in the armed forces are studying how the vaccine may be linked to heart problems. Ten cases of such disorders occurred in soldiers after the vaccination, and two have been reported among civilians.

Col. John D. Grabenstein of the U.S. Army Medical Command in Falls Church, Va., said yesterday that a study in Finland suggests the vaccine can trigger myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. Finnish epidemiologists found that in soldiers vaccinated against smallpox in the 1980s, one in 10,000 developed an inflammatory heart condition.

Still under study, however, is the issue of who is most at risk, Grabenstein said.