- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2002

After suffering five deaths and 13 illnesses directly resulting from anthrax infections last fall, Americans can no longer deny the presence of a serious bioterrorist threat. Last week, President Bush signed an anti-bioterrorism bill that allocates $640 million to stockpile vaccines against smallpox a deadly disease that killed roughly one-third of its victims before being eradicated in 1978. By the end of this year, the federal government will have collected more than enough doses of the vaccine to give all Americans a shot in the arm. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the federal agency charged with protecting the public from disease, wants to keep the vaccine out of the hands of U.S. citizens until a smallpox attack actually occurs. This policy fails to properly protect U.S. citizens from a menacing external threat.

The CDC has assembled a 15-member panel of public health experts to evaluate its current smallpox vaccine policy. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), after meeting yesterday and today, will make a recommendation to the Health and Human Services secretary and the CDC acting director. The ACIP must decide in favor of public choice. Allowing Americans to choose the vaccine for themselves will most effectively guard against a future attack, while acknowledging the principle of freedom for which the United States stands.

CDC officials are rightly concerned about the risks associated with the vaccine, which is inappropriate for infants, cancer and AIDS patients, pregnant women and individuals with eczema. According to an April policy analysis issued by the Cato Institute, one of 150,000 people vaccinated with "abnormal immune systems" will experience "severe reactions" and one of 500,000 will die "as a direct result of the vaccine." But these statistics come from mass vaccination programs that were carried out in the 1960s, when much less was known about the human immune system. Decades later, scientific progress has allowed us to identify those who shouldn't receive the vaccine. We also now know to cover the injection site with specially designed bandages, so that people who are vaccinated are prevented from spreading the vaccine to those who might be harmed by it.

CDC and Department of Defense officials believe the risk of a smallpox attack on the United States to be relatively low. But last week's revelation that Russia tested its own weaponized smallpox in 1971, killing three and hospitalizing seven others, underscores the possibility that some rogue states might have their own private stock of the deadly virus. It is far better for the CDC to allow Americans to assess for themselves the smallpox threat and choose whether to receive the vaccine, rather than wait until a biologically inclined version of Osama bin Laden comes along. Biologists have long known that even if only a small percentage of a population is vaccinated, a "community immunity" effect significantly reduces the number of deaths from the disease. As the ACIP convenes in Atlanta today, its members must recommend the smallpox vaccine be made publicly available, and that the public should be educated about the health risks of bioterrorism. Better safe than sorry.

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