SOLDIER HAS REACTION TO SMALLPOX VACCINE



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Last Updated

01 Feb 2003

Source: Associated Press, January 31, 2003

Soldier Has Reaction to Smallpox Vaccine

By LAURA MECKLER, Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) One soldier inoculated against smallpox has suffered a potentially serious skin reaction to the vaccine, and officials are investigating whether a second ill soldier also is reacting to the shot, the Pentagon said Friday.

It was the first report of any serious reaction to Americans receiving the vaccinations, which began in December for the military and are just now getting under way for civilians.

The first case, a 30-year-old Army soldier at a U.S. base, was a skin reaction called generalized vaccinia, and officials were confident it was linked to the man's vaccination 10 days earlier.

In the second case, a 26-year-old Army soldier was admitted to an overseas military hospital for encephalitis, a brain disease that can cause paralysis or permanent neurological damage. Diagnostic studies could not confirm that his reaction was due to his smallpox vaccination. But he had received the vaccination eight days earlier, and the timing made authorities suspicious. They are investigating further.

Both men now are in good condition, the Pentagon said.

Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said the reactions were not surprising.

"We can expect additional reactions to occur; some will be significant reactions,'' he said in a statement.

There has been considerable discussion about the vaccine's risks, which are rare but serious. Experts believe that out of every million people being vaccinated for the first time, between 14 and 52 will face serious, life-threatening reactions, and one or two will die. People who come into close contact with vaccines also can be injured.

The vaccine is made with a live virus called vaccinia, which can escape the inoculation site and infect other parts of the body.

Routine smallpox vaccinations ended in this country in 1972 as the disease was being eradicated from Earth. The last U.S. case was in 1949. But officials fear smallpox could return in an act of bioterrorism, and the military believes its forces, on the cusp of war with Iraq, could face a biological attack.

Vaccinations are voluntary for civilians, but mandatory in the military.

The military has not said how many operational forces it has vaccinated so far, but said the total exceeds tens of thousands. In addition, the Pentagon has vaccinated 3,665 health care workers.

The military vaccinations began in December and include up to a half-million troops in high-risk areas, particularly Southwest Asia.

So far, most of the reactions have been minor, the Pentagon said. Three percent of the people being vaccinated had to take sick leave, with an average length of absence of 1.5 days.

The Defense Department would not release the names or locations of the two people who suffered more serious reactions.

The first case was identified last Saturday. The soldier developed a rash about 10 days after being vaccinated that included several pustules, or pus-filled blisters. The rash appears to be "generalized vaccinia,'' in which the virus travels through the blood and infects the skin.

Generalized vaccinia can develop into a serious skin condition, but in this case, the soldier is well and continues to work at his normal assignment, the Pentagon said.

The second case was identified Sunday. The soldier's was diagnosed with encephalitis, but since then he has "markedly improved, is in good condition and is expected to be released from the hospital soon,'' the Pentagon said.

Encephalitis can cause paralysis or permanent neurological damage. Symptoms include fever, headache, vomiting and drowsiness. Based on studies from the 1960s, one person out of every 300,000 vaccinated are expected to come down with this condition.