Pennsylvania State Health Officials Kick Off Smallpox Vaccination Effort

HARRISBURG, Penn. -- On behalf of Pennsylvania Governor Edward G. Rendell, Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll and Acting Health Secretary Dr. Robert S. Muscalus today kicked of the first phase of Pennsylvania's smallpox vaccination program when public health workers were vaccinated during a briefing held at the state capitol. Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Bruce W. Dixon joined them.

"Today marks another step forward in Pennsylvania's ongoing quest to be prepared for any emergency," said Knoll. "Thanks to volunteers, like those here today, Pennsylvania will be ready to respond quickly and effectively should there be a bioterrorism attack using smallpox."

Following the inoculations, the group will be dispatched throughout the state to vaccinate other public health workers, who will then vaccinate doctors, nurses, other hospital support staff and law enforcement personnel during the next month.

The first phase of Pennsylvania's smallpox vaccination plans calls for the vaccination of up to 22,500 Pennsylvanians. During this phase, volunteer healthcare providers receiving the vaccine will include Public Health Response Teams throughout Pennsylvania and designated Health Care Worker Team members from participating hospitals. If an actual smallpox outbreak should occur, those vaccinated in the first stage would respond by providing vaccine, investigating potential cases or providing care to those infected. The second phase is expected to include the offering of the smallpox vaccine to other health care providers and first responders. At this time the federal government does not recommend the vaccine for the general public.

"I encourage all hospitals and eligible health care workers on hospital response teams to consider being vaccinated for smallpox," said Acting Health Secretary Dr. Robert S. Muscalus. "However, I remind everyone that this is voluntary effort and is an individual decision on the part of healthcare workers.

"It's important to keep in mind that there is a risk associated with the smallpox vaccine. That's why we are taking every precaution to carefully screen all volunteers for risk factors and educate them so they are comfortable with their decision to be vaccinated."

Smallpox is a contagious, and in some cases fatal, infectious disease caused by the variola virus. Approximately 30 percent of people who contract the more common form of the disease die. The last case of smallpox in Pennsylvania was in 1945, the last case in the United States was in 1949, and the last natural case in the world occurred in Somalia in 1977. In the United States, routine vaccination of the general public was discontinued in 1972, when the risk of serious adverse reaction (including death) from the vaccine was determined to outweigh the actual threat of disease.

"The eradication of wild smallpox was one of the greatest achievements in public health," said Allegheny County Health Department Director Bruce W. Dixon, MD. "If smallpox should ever raise its ugly head, through an act of terrorism, we in public health will be ready to respond, fight and win the battle again."

The virus is now known to exist in two secure repositories worldwide. However, federal authorities suspect it may be in the possession of terrorists who could use it as a weapon.

The vaccine does not contain smallpox, but rather a related, less harmful virus that protects against smallpox. The vaccine has side effects including fatigue, fever, and body aches.

Complications from the vaccine can be severe in rare instances and especially in people with certain conditions. Volunteers are screened to exclude individuals with the following conditions and those who live with people who have such conditions:

-- Conditions that weaken the immune system such as HIV/AIDS, leukemia,

lymphoma, most cancers or organ transplants.

-- Severe autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, that may significantly

suppress the immune system.

-- Currently taking, or having recently been treated with,

immunosuppressive drugs such as oral steroids (e.g. prednisone), some

drugs for autoimmune disease, or drugs taken after an organ transplant.

-- Undergoing cancer treatment with drugs, radiation or undergone such

treatment in the last three months.

-- Eczema or atopic dermatitis or a history of these conditions, even in

childhood or infancy.

-- Other skin conditions that cause breaks in the skin such as allergic

rash, severe burn, impetigo, chickenpox, shingles or severe acne.

-- Currently are being treated with steroid eye drops.

-- Are currently pregnant, breastfeeding or planning to become pregnant in

the next month. Any woman who might be pregnant should take a pregnancy

test with a "first morning" urine sample on the day of vaccination.

-- History of life-threatening allergic reaction to the antibiotics

polymixin B, streptomycin, chlortetracycline and neomycin.

-- Moderate or severe illness (including illness with a fever).

-- Darier's disease, a skin disease that usually begins in childhood.

-- History of a serious, life-threatening reaction to smallpox vaccine.

Source: Pennsylvania Department of Health

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