Possible Risks Exist with Smallpox Vaccine

An foot infected with smallpox (above) compared with a healthy foot. (World Health Organization)
An foot infected with smallpox (above) compared with a healthy foot. (World Health Organization)

December 12, 2002
Posted at: 5:40 p.m. CDT

JONESBORO, Ark. -- Americans wanting the smallpox vaccinne will soon be able to get it, according to President Bush. The official announcement is expected to be made tomorrow.

The plan is a measure to guard against a possible bio-terror attack on the United States.

The smallpox virus was eradicated in the U.S. around 1950. After the disease was eliminated, routine vaccinations were stopped around 1972 because it was no longer necessary for prevention. Now there are many questions that exist with the threat of a terroist attack. Is smallpox really a threat? Who should consider getting a vaccine?

Smallpox is a serious, highly contagious, and sometimes fatal infectious disease. There is no specific treatment for it, the only prevention is vaccination. Under the president's new plan, active duty military and domestic health care workers will soon be the first to be given the vaccine.

"It really depends on the level of threat," said local dermatologist Dr. David Weingold. "If the probability of getting exposed is low then there's very little reason to get vaccinated, the vaccination has real complications."

Weingold says since the vaccination is a live virus, some people can experience serious side effects.

"With vaccination certainly it's going to become inflamed. It can become infected. It can get larger for a long time and slowly heal. You can even get blisters all over your body from the vaccination and a few people even get encephalitis, or inflamation of the brain stem, and they can die," he said.

Weingold says the likelyhood of anyone dieing from the vaccine are three in a million. For the most part he says the vaccine is safe and effective. When asked, however, some Region 8 residents would consider taking the vaccine.

"The odds are in your favor," said one unidentified resident. "Either way, I'm taking a chance."

Should an outbreak occur, there are symptoms people should be on the outlook for. Smallpox lesions start in the middle of your chest and then spread to all parts of your body within 24 hours.

"You just feel sick," Weingold said. "And they crust over."

Many in the general population, especially those over age 30, have already received the smallpox vaccine thanks to efforts to innoculate school-age children that ended around 1972. Whether or not those people should be re-vaccinated is still unclear, according to medical experts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommen that certain individuals do not receive the vaccination. Those people include: pregnant women, people with immune system problems, people with certain skin conditions and people living with someone less than a year old.

The general population would not begin to receive the smallpox vaccination until at least 1994.