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The thud you heard was the federal government program to vaccinate against smallpox coming to an abrupt halt. By the time of this writing, we should have been well into Phase III, which would have made the vaccine available to the general public. Instead the program faltered in Phase I, with only about 38,000 health care workers and approximately 450,000 military personnel being vaccinated.
Launched in December 2002 with great fanfare and expectations, the first phase of the campaign aimed to vaccinate about 500,000 civilian health care workers, all volunteers. As many as 10 million police, fire and EMS personnel were to have been vaccinated in the second phase. The initial goal was to have enough immune people on hand to care for the ill and to vaccinate quickly those who were not yet sick, in case of a smallpox outbreak. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collected and distributed enough vaccine for every American in a remarkably short period of time.
Unfortunately, some of the vaccine is going to waste. In Indiana, state officials are discarding hundreds of doses of smallpox vaccine that went unused after the vaccination program was halted last spring. Reports from Illinois, Oregon and Pennsylvania paint the same picture.
Smallpox is one of the deadliest diseases known to mankind. It is estimated that over 300 million people worldwide have died of disease through the ages. The last United States case of smallpox occurred in 1949 and the last case of smallpox in the world was reported in Somalia in 1977. Routine smallpox inoculations ceased in the United States in 1972 and the World Health Organization declared the disease eradicated in 1980. But stockpiles of the virus were maintained in laboratories by the United States and the former Soviet Union. Other countries are suspected of having stockpiles of smallpox, including North Korea, Iran, France, and China. Iraq was suspected of also having smallpox, but as of this writing, none has been found by our troops. In 1989, a defector from the Soviet Union told U.S. officials of an elaborate bio-weapons program in the Soviet Union, where approximately 100 tons of smallpox was produced each year. Some of the smallpox was even loaded into warheads that could be launched on the United States in the event of a war.
With the breakup of the Soviet Union, terrorism experts feared that the smallpox samples could have fallen into the wrong hands and then could be turned into a weapon of germ warfare. Since childhood vaccinations ceased 31 years ago, much of the U.S. population would have no immunity if terrorists deliberately released the virus.
The mortality rate for smallpox averages about 30%. However, this figure is over 30 years old and some conjecture that it would be much lower today because of our advances in medicine from 30 years ago.
On June 18, government officials said the civilian and military smallpox vaccination programs had virtually come to a halt. Why? First, all military personnel who could be vaccinated for high-risk overseas duty had been vaccinated. Second, there was a lack of interest in the civilian sector.
Why the lack of interest in the civilian sector? Some theorize that one cause is that the smallpox vaccine, Vaccinia, is the most dangerous vaccine around, since it is actually a live virus. Experts predicted that the vaccine would cause serious adverse reactions in one in 19,000 to one in 71,000 people and would kill one or two in a million. They also predicted brain inflammations.
But one thing happened that they did not predict: heart attacks and heart complications! Eight people suffered heart attacks after immunization and three died. What was unclear was if the deaths were coincidental or were attributed to the vaccination. Most of those who suffered heart attacks were middle age, and several had clogged arteries, diabetes or other risk factors such as smoking.