UNC Hospitals decided this week to implement a controversial smallpox vaccination program, becoming one of 60 hospitals in North Carolina to do so.
All 5,000 employees of the hospital received an e-mail detailing the plan to inoculate 80 to 120 employee volunteers who would be responsible for treating smallpox cases in the event of a bioterrorist attack.
The plan follows a nationwide vaccination program for hospital workers, which is expected to start after Jan. 24 in accordance with a declaration by President Bush.
Tom Hughes, UNC Hospitals spokesman, said there are three good reasons for the hospital to follow Bush's advice about smallpox immunizations, even though he thinks several hospitals in North Carolina have declined.
"There are a number of reasons we decided to support the state's smallpox program," Hughes said. "We are the state's hospital, there are a lot of military personnel in this area, and we have among the highest emergency room visits in the state."
Hughes said UNC Hospitals most likely will have to deal with more treatments of reactions and side effects of the smallpox vaccine than actual outbreaks because of the vaccine's volatile nature.
"All of the military personnel have to be treated, and if a person who lives with a person with a reaction comes into contact with a sore before it is healed, they would have a reaction," he said.
Military personnel and their families might need treatment from immunized hospital employees because people with common skin conditions like psoriasis and eczema typically have bad reactions to the vaccine. People with autoimmune diseases or HIV and people undergoing chemotherapy also are in danger of having a reaction.
Although the vaccinated employees at UNC Hospitals will be volunteers, not just anyone can step forward, in part because of the vaccination's dangers. Hughes said potential volunteers, as well as their spouses and children, must be screened for the risky conditions.
Bill Roper, dean of the School of Public Health and a member of UNC Hospitals' board of directors, said that he supports the decision and that he thinks the group is doing what is best for the people it serves, even though he was not involved in the plan's organization.
"I have read what they plan to do, and it seems to me to be an appropriate response to get the system ready for a possible event with smallpox," Roper said. "I hope it doesn't happen, but I think they're taking the right steps to get people immunized."
Despite the high incidence of side effects that go hand in hand with the vaccine, smallpox could be dangerous particularly as a weapon of bioterrorism, and concern has peaked since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Smallpox was eradicated worldwide in 1980 due to vigorous vaccinations, and the last vaccinations in the United States were given in 1971. Smallpox is a highly contagious disease with no known cure. Symptoms are fever, malaise and a disfiguring rash that culminate in death for one-third of the disease's victims.
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