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State Suspends Smallpox Vaccinations For Health Care Workers

Apr 1, 2003 | AP

Arizona suspended its smallpox vaccination program for health workers until more information is available on a possible link between the vaccine and heart problems.

None of the approximately 40 Arizona public health workers who have received the vaccine have suffered serious side effects, but nationally, three people have died and 14 others have suffered serious heart-related problems.

"The good news is everybody seems to be OK and as a precaution, we're putting a hold on the program," Michael Murphy, spokesman for the Arizona Department of Health Services, said Monday.

The state began giving the smallpox vaccine to health-care workers on a voluntary basis in March, but the program was suspended indefinitely on Friday.

The volunteers underwent rigorous health screenings before receiving the vaccine, but heart problems were not among the risk factors examined. About 25,000 volunteers nationally have received the vaccine; another 350,000 military personnel also have been inoculated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating the possible links between heart problems and the vaccine. It has already ordered that people with a history of heart disease not be vaccinated.

Elizabeth MacNeill, chief medical officer for the Pima County Health Department, said that if the heart risk guideline had been in place before she and three others from Pima County received the vaccine, one of them wouldn't have been inoculated.

MacNeill had expressed reservations about the plans to immunize health-care workers since no actual smallpox cases exist and potentially serious side effects were well-documented, even before the recent heart concerns arose.

She and three other health workers received the vaccine three weeks ago. None have shown symptoms of heart problems, but two continue to be treated for other vaccine-related side effects, she said.

MacNeill said the state's decision to suspend further smallpox vaccinations until more is known about the possible heart effects is the right one. "Safety is our big concern."

Even if the CDC finds the vaccine and heart problems are not related, it's likely to further deter an already reluctant health care community from getting the vaccine.

"Even if this is not related to the vaccine at all a lot of people have been spooked to begin with. I think this will make it even harder to get people to volunteer," MacNeill said.

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