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State to vaccinate against smallpox

Health workers will be the first to be offered the vaccine late next month. The public would have its chance in 2004.

©Associated Press
December 24, 2002

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida will begin offering smallpox vaccinations to public health and hospital workers soon, and the general public eventually will be able to get them, Florida's health chief said Monday.

Reacting to the possibility that terrorists could release the smallpox virus, the state will offer the vaccine to health care workers beginning late next month, said Dr. John Agwunobi, secretary of the state Department of Health.

"Our goal, ultimately, is to vaccinate upwards to 35,000 individuals across the state in such a way that if a smallpox case were to arise anywhere in this state we would have individuals who are protected from smallpox disease . . . who could then respond immediately," Agwunobi said.

In the second phase of Operation Vaccinate Florida, some 400,000 police officers and paramedics will be offered the shots in the spring. Vaccination of the general public would begin sometime after January 2004. About 10-million of Florida's 16-million people are estimated to be eligible for the vaccine, Agwunobi said.

Details of the second and third phases must still be worked out and approved by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the CDC notified the state last week that the broad strategy had been approved.

Vaccination is voluntary, and the state won't try to convince people that they should be vaccinated, Agwunobi said. He said the success of the program wouldn't be judged by how many people participate.

"If we had even one individual accept a vaccine, that is a success," he said.

He said he would probably decide to be vaccinated.

Although there can be an adverse reaction to the smallpox virus used in the vaccine, the risk is relatively small, Agwunobi said.

"For every 1-million individuals vaccinated, it could be expected that one to three individuals will die," he said.

However, he said, the risk of the disease, if it breaks out, is far greater than the risk of the vaccine: "If 1-million people came down with smallpox the disease, 300,000 of them could be expected to die."

Vaccinations have already begun in Florida: This month, Orange County Sheriff Kevin Beary was vaccinated and said he hoped most of his department's 1,400 deputies follow his example. Beary made the decision independently of federal or state plans.

The state's vaccination plan is part of a broader national effort in which President Bush was vaccinated over the weekend. Last week, the president ordered the vaccination of a half-million troops in preparation for a possible war with Iraq, which may have biological weapons that use smallpox.

The United States stopped giving routine smallpox vaccinations in 1972, but health officials are not sure whether those vaccinated decades ago are still protected. Smallpox was eradicated in nature worldwide in 1980. It kills about 30 percent of the people who catch it and leaves the rest scarred.

Experts estimate that 15 out of every 1-million people vaccinated for the first time will face life-threatening complications. Reactions are less common for those being revaccinated.

Typical side effects from the vaccine, which is made with a live virus, include sore arms, fever and swollen glands. In an experimental trial under way in Nashville, about 10 percent of people experienced extreme discomfort, with fatigue, fever, loss of appetite and other flulike symptoms that lasted a day or two.

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