Island health workers face smallpox vaccination

The Island County Health Department is well on the way to putting in place Stage 1 of the smallpox vaccination plan, as required by the federal government.

In a decision announced Friday, President Bush ordered a voluntary smallpox vaccination program to defend against a possible bioterror attack.

Stage 1 of the program targets public health care providers such as doctors, nurses and hospital workers who would come in direct, prolonged contact with smallpox victims. Dr. Roger Case, Island County's health officer, said the county health department is now figuring out who needs to be vaccinated locally.

"We have identified the positions, now we're filling in the names," Case said this week.

He estimated there are about 120 caregivers in Island County who should be vaccinated to comply with the federal program. Because the live smallpox vaccine has the risk of severe side effects, participation in the vaccination program is voluntary.

Island County Stage 1 personnel will be vaccinated starting in early 2003. A location has not been determined. The state is establishing clinics in each of the nine Public Health Emergency Preparedness and Response regions, and possibly several mobile centers.

The military is included in the Stage 1 vaccinations. However, Navy spokeswoman Kim Martin at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station said there is no vaccination time table for island service members yet.

Case said that while it is important to be prepared in the event of a smallpox outbreak, "it's not as scary as we're led to believe."

"It's not like a brush fire," he said. "It kind of creeps around, and spreads slowly."

People who have smallpox can be very sick for three or more days before they become contagious, Case said.

That gives health care workers the advantage of time.

"It's relatively easy to vaccinate all those who have been in contact," Case said.

There is no plan at this time for a mass public vaccination program.

Case said at this point, it's important to vaccinate those identified in Stage 1, and to move on to identifying Stage 2 people, which incudes first responders, such as firefighters and emergency medical technicians.

Until smallpox was considered eradicated worldwide in 1977, vaccinations were routinely given to school children.

While many older Americans may remember the painful experience of getting a smallpox immunization shot in the arm as a child, Case said there is no guarantee that early vaccinations are still providing protection.

"We don't know the degree of immunization (from early vaccinations)," he said. "With the disease absent, there is no way to know the level of protection."

Case said people who have a smallpox immunization scar on their shoulders should not assume they are immune.

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