Health workers resist smallpox vaccine

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(Host) The Centers for Disease control says 35,000 health care workers have volunteered for smallpox vaccinations in a national effort to prepare for an outbreak of the disease. That’s far short of the 500,000 the government had hoped to inoculate.

As VPR’s Steve Zind reports, the small number of Vermont volunteers has state health care officials reassessing the vaccination program.

(Zind) In January, 2,0000 doses of the smallpox vaccine arrived in Vermont and the Health Department prepared to inoculate health care workers on a volunteer basis. Nearly four months later, only 117 Vermont health care workers have stepped forward to be vaccinated.

Deputy Health Commissioner Sharon Moffatt says the low turnout has health officials moving away from an emphasis on vaccinations and instead stressing other aspects of smallpox preparedness.

(Moffatt) “There are many components to preparedness. The number of people we have vaccinated is only one component. We’re continuing to work on making sure that hospitals, for example, have negative pressure rooms. That they have fully in place isolation procedures for suspected or possible cases.”

(Zind) Moffatt says the current phase of the vaccination program will conclude at the end of the month. After that, she says the health department will look at ways to open the program to more potential volunteers. Moffatt says the low number is due to the cautious approach the state took in deciding who could be vaccinated.

But there were other reasons. Ann Ruby is infection control nurse for Rutland Regional Medical Center. Ruby says the health department wanted 95 people at the center to receive vaccinations. Fewer than 10 signed up. Ruby says there were a number of reasons for that including a swift end to the Iraqi war and a reduced threat of terrorism. The outcome of the war was one of them.

(Ruby) “The way the war went in Iraq toward the end a lot of people felt there were more risks than benefits and that maybe it wasn’t as real a threat as it seemed to be before we went to war with Iraq.”

(Zind) Health Department officials say even if there is a case of smallpox, they’ll be able to quickly inoculate health care workers. The smallpox vaccine is effective even if it’s administered a few days after exposure.

Ann Ruby says she thinks hospital workers will gladly get vaccinated if they think smallpox presents a very real public health threat.

(Ruby) “You bet! They’d all be lining up at the door to get it.”

(Zind) The Health Department is trying to determine the shelf life of the 2,000 vaccines received in January. There’s a chance they could be unusable after the end of the month. If that’s the case, Sharon Moffatt says new vaccine will be made available.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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