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Last Updated

29 Jan 2003

Source: Newsday, January 29, 2003

Smallpox Plan's Risks Debated

By Delthia Ricks, STAFF WRITER

Organizations representing nurses and other health care workers are asking the Bush administration to reconsider many aspects of its smallpox vaccination plan, including the use of a special needle that they say is unsafe and outdated.

Calls for re-evaluating the campaign come as the program is off to a sputtering start and federal lawmakers begin two days of testimony about the plan - and its problems - today in Washington.

No hospitals in New York have objected to participating. Health-care union representatives throughout the state, however, are voicing public concern about the potentially risky live-virus vaccine and the need for compensation should volunteers experience a bad reaction. New York State health officials have not yet placed an order for vaccine inoculation kits from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Several states in the nation have expressed concerns about the implementation of the plan, and though we all think that being prepared for bioterrorism is a good idea, we are also very concerned about the health and safety of people being vaccinated," said Patricia Greenberg, executive director of the nurse alliance of New York State's Service Employees International Union.

Compensation for illness caused by the vaccine is a huge issue, Greenberg said, and must be addressed before the program proceeds. The Homeland Security Act, which went into effect Friday, provides liability protection only for the government, those who administer the vaccine and manufacturers.

Unions representing health care workers in California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania have urged members not to volunteer. More than 80 hospitals across the country have refused to allow their employees to participate.

Announced by President George W. Bush in December, the campaign is designed to inoculate 500,000 clinicians nationwide against smallpox. The program widens in a few months to include 10 million emergency first-responders.

The Senate Appropriations Committee opens hearings today about implementation. Testimony will be heard from physicians, nurses and other health care workers about need for a federal compensation package for anyone harmed by the vaccine. Tomorrow the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will hear testimony from unions representing nurses as well as from such top public health officials as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Dr. Julie Gerberding, CDC director.

Parent organizations for New York unions and professional associations will be among those who testify. Among concerns is the bifurcated needle used to inoculate volunteers against smallpox. The two-pronged device was developed a half century ago, decades before safe-needle regulations were enacted. Vaccine doses are delivered by 12 to 15 jabs in the upper arm with the fork-like instrument. The needle does not contract to protect health care workers from needle stick injury.

"Nurses have been concerned about safe needles for some time now because needle sticks are a major source of infection for nurses," said Nancy Webber, spokeswoman for the New York State Nurses Association, which represents 35,000 registered nurses. "We don't want to end the vaccination program; we just want it delayed until we get these problems worked out," said Barbara Coufal, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.