- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 14, 2002

President Bush yesterday ordered smallpox vaccinations for 500,000 military personnel, including himself as commander in chief, but discouraged most Americans from getting inoculated.
Although he expressed concern that terrorists could use the smallpox virus as a weapon against the public, Mr. Bush said that danger did not outweigh the risk of side effects of the vaccination, which include death in rare cases.
"Neither my family nor my staff will be receiving the vaccine because our health and national-security experts do not believe a vaccination is necessary for the general public," the president said in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.
That means Mr. Bush might be the only one in the White House to receive the vaccination, which in the past has resulted in the deaths of one in every 1 million recipients.
"As commander in chief, I do not believe I can ask others to accept this risk unless I am willing to do the same," he explained. "Therefore, I will receive the vaccine along with our military."
The first phase of the president's plan entails smallpox vaccinations for 500,000 military and civilian employees of the Defense Department, starting with those who are being deployed to the Persian Gulf in the event of a war against Iraq. Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has a record of using chemical and biological weapons against foreign foes and fellow Iraqis.
Mr. Bush also recommended, but did not order, vaccinations for 450,000 emergency and medical workers who would be on the front lines of any domestic bioterrorism attack. Smallpox was eradicated 22 years ago, but is now considered a potentially devastating weapon in the hands of terrorists.
"We will make the vaccine available on a voluntary basis to medical professionals and emergency personnel and response teams that would be the first on the scene in a smallpox emergency," the president said.
"These teams would immediately provide vaccine and treatment to Americans in a crisis," he added. "And to do this job effectively, members of these teams should be protected against the disease."
As for the rest of America, Mr. Bush emphasized that smallpox vaccinations generally are not necessary. His administration reached that conclusion after more than a year of deliberations, during which the government replenished vaccine supplies that had dwindled in recent decades.
"America has stockpiled enough vaccine and is now prepared to inoculate our entire population in the event of a smallpox attack," the president said.
"Americans and anyone who would think of harming Americans can be certain that this nation is ready to respond quickly and effectively to a smallpox emergency or an increase in the level of threat"
But unless such a threat is forthcoming, Mr. Bush does not favor mass inoculations of the public.
"Given the current level of threat and the inherent health risks of the vaccine, we have decided not to initiate a broader vaccination program for all Americans at this time," he said.
"At present, the responsible course is to make careful and thorough preparations in case a broader vaccination program should become necessary in the future.
"There may be some citizens, however, who insist on being vaccinated now," he added. "Our public health agencies will work to accommodate them. But that is not our recommendation at this time."
Mindful that some will seek vaccinations, the White House kicked off a major education effort aimed at reacquainting Americans with a disease many had forgotten. Schoolchildren in the United States were routinely vaccinated until 1972, and the disease was declared completely eradicated in 1980.
That means that nearly half the population has no protection from the deadly virus. It is not clear how effective the vaccination remains in older Americans.
Those who feel strongly about getting a vaccination might not be able to do so until 2004, when the administration will have developed a process for inoculating those without disqualifying conditions.
The vaccine could be especially harmful to people with cancer, HIV or eczema, as well as pregnant women, organ-transplant recipients and other people with compromised immune systems.
Not all members of the military are expected to willingly submit to the vaccinations. Several hundred people were forced out of the military for refusing to submit to vaccinations against anthrax in recent years.
Some medical and emergency workers are likely to experience similar trepidation, the president acknowledged.
"I understand that many first responders will have questions before deciding whether to be vaccinated," he said. "We will make sure they have the medical advice they need to make an informed decision."
Still, Mr. Bush made clear that such workers also face a risk by opting against vaccination.
"Smallpox is a serious disease, and we know that our enemies are trying to inflict serious harm," he said. "The smallpox virus still exists in laboratories.
"And we believe that regimes hostile to the United States may possess this dangerous virus," he added. "To protect our citizens in the aftermath of September the 11th, we are evaluating old threats in a new light."

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