The U.S. surgeon general is scheduled to be vaccinated against smallpox before news cameras today as part of an expanding program of public events intended to kick-start President Bush's stalled inoculation effort against the deadly disease.
The vaccination of Vice Adm. Richard H. Carmona in the Great Hall of the Department of Health and Human Services headquarters is scheduled to be followed by the public inoculation of two other high-ranking federal health officials on Wednesday: Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and D.A. Henderson, the doctor who spearheaded the historic global effort that eradicated smallpox in 1980.
The events mark the launch of an effort to revitalize the federal vaccination program and expand it to include a wider circle of public health workers who might be called upon to respond to a bioterror attack involving smallpox. Critics of the program have said it is being conducted too hastily and without adequate attention to the risks of the vaccine, and reiterated those concerns yesterday.
The world's last naturally occurring case of smallpox occurred in 1978 after a massive vaccination campaign led by Henderson, who has advised HHS in various capacities since the anthrax attacks of 2001. The disease was declared eradicated in 1980. But amid concerns that frozen stocks of the virus may have fallen into terrorists' hands, Bush in December called for nationwide vaccination.
Bush's plan called for as many as 10.5 million medical workers and emergency responders to be vaccinated starting Jan. 24, with the initial goal of having 500,000 people vaccinated by March 1. But as of Feb. 21, the most recent date for which figures have been published, only 7,354 health care workers had stepped up to the plate, with many workers and hospital administrators across the country expressing concern that the risks of the vaccine, though small, may be greater than the risk of a smallpox attack.
HHS spokesman Bill Pierce said the surgeon general's public vaccination was aimed at energizing the effort. "As America's doctor, he wants to give a message to the doctors of America that it's time to roll up your sleeves, literally," Pierce said.
Last week the Bush administration sought to enhance confidence in the vaccine by proposing legislation that would compensate people who were made ill by it and provide death benefits to the families of any killed by it.
Yesterday, after specific language was released for the first time, critics said there was nothing in it to protect workers from being discriminated against if they refuse to participate, and nothing explicitly addressing concerns of medical confidentiality.
Perhaps most disturbing, said Barbara Coufal, a lobbyist with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is that the bill would grant compensation for illnesses incurred by people who are vaccinated in the first 120 days after passage, but not for those vaccinated after that -- language that could be interpreted as an unethical inducement to make a quick decision.
"To punish someone because they didn't get it quickly enough is really awful," said Coufal, whose union represents 350,000 health care workers and first responders. "There should be no time limit."
For Henderson, who led the fight against smallpox, the need to be vaccinated yet again will probably be heartbreaking, an associate said. "It's obviously a very powerful image, but one which unfortunately is very much on target," given the risk of attack, said Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.