Many Doctors and the Public ‘Poorly Understand’ Risks Associated with Smallpox Vaccine
Many doctors and the public "poorly understand" the potential dangers and complications associated with the smallpox vaccine and need further education, according to survey results presented yesterday to the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices and the National Vaccine Advisory Committee, the New York Times reports (Altman, New York Times, 5/10). The Oak Ridge Institute, a science survey group, in April conducted interviews with 17 doctors from Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco and held 20 public focus groups with about eight participants each to gauge knowledge of smallpox vaccination and found that most people, including many doctors, "mistakenly believe smallpox vaccine is as safe as common childhood vaccines" (McClam, AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 5/9). According to the survey, many people falsely believe the virus is still found naturally, while in fact, smallpox was eradicated more than two decades ago. Most doctors, particularly those under age 40, do not know how to use the two-pronged needle required to administer the vaccine, the survey found. The United States suspended wide-scale smallpox vaccination in 1972 because of the low incidence of the virus and because of the high rate of complications and risk of death related to the vaccine (New York Times, 5/10). Glen Nowak of the CDC's National Immunization Program said, "This is not something doctors have received formal training on," noting that the findings "highligh[t] that we have some education challenges ahead of us" (AP/South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 5/9).
The National Vaccine Advisory Committee, at the end of a two-day meeting in Atlanta, expressed support for administering the smallpox vaccine to a small number of state health workers and some hospital personnel, the Wall Street Journal reports. However, the panel "balked" at mass vaccination efforts, which would include emergency workers and the general public (Terhune, Wall Street Journal, 5/10). The National Vaccine Advisory Committee has been asked to recommend by June 20 whether to continue with the current policy or to embark on a wider vaccination campaign. Under June 2001 guidelines, generally only researchers who work directly with the virus or any of its "close virological cousins" receive the smallpox vaccination. That decision was based on the fact that the virus now exists only in labs and that the United States possessed only 15 million doses of the vaccine at the time. However, the threat of a biological attack has prompted the CDC to stockpile smallpox vaccine doses and reconsider who should receive the vaccine (New York Times, 5/10).
In related news, some health officials are concerned that the May 16 season finale of television show "E.R." could "foster more misinformation" about smallpox, the Journal reports. In the episode, the emergency room is quarantined after two children of diplomats stationed abroad return to Chicago and arrive in the emergency room with fevers and "pox-like rash[es]." George Hardy, executive director of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said, "We don't want this to be about fear and controversy." A spokesperson for the show said that CDC representatives were on the set during filming and "appeared comfortable" with the storyline (Wall Street Journal, 5/10).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.