- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

The federal government's already stalled smallpox vaccination program suffered another series of setbacks this week. Two health-care workers died of heart attacks shortly after receiving inoculations, and the House postponed debate on a smallpox compensation package, similar to what President Bush had requested.

The two deaths and the discovery that five others experienced cardiac difficulties (including one who suffered a nonfatal heart attack) shortly after being immunized, prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to give medical deferrals to those volunteering individuals who have heart disease.

The CDC's precaution seems reasonable since the correlation is alarming, but a direct cause and effect relationship has not been established. Historically speaking, the smallpox vaccination has caused severe and even fatal side effects in a small number of those inoculated; it has not been known to cause cardiac complications. Moreover, many of those who suffered such effects had other risk factors, including the use of tobacco, hypertension and obesity. Age could be a factor, too, since all three of the individuals who suffered heart attacks were in their 50s, and of the hundreds of thousands of military personnel who have been vaccinated, only one experienced a cardiac problem afterward.

Necessarily, more than 25,000 health-care workers have been vaccinated. The program must not be allowed to further slow down. After all, other categories of risk are known to exist, and as a result, those individuals with skin disease or suppressed immune systems also receive smallpox deferrals.

Besides, those unfortunates who experience complications following a smallpox shot will receive ample compensation if legislators can ever resolve their differences on what is appropriate. Under the plan proposed by the administration, those killed or permanently incapacitated would receive $262,500, while those who experienced lesser injuries would receive two-thirds of their lost wages, up to $50,000. Legislators had planned to consider a comparable bill offered by House Republicans, but the debate was stymied by Democrats holding out for a more expensive plan.

These difficulties must be resolved soon. The smallpox vaccination program is already too far behind schedule as it stands. It must be remembered that, beyond the partisan wrangling over compensation and the potential complications from smallpox immunizations, lies the terrible potential of a terrorist attack. The administration is right to continue to push the vaccination program. Congress must get behind it as soon as possible.

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