Two days after getting her smallpox vaccine, Dr. Cynthia Olson of Minnetonka became one of seven U.S. health workers who suffered heart problems, prompting a nationwide alert.
Olson, 45, a dermatologist at Hennepin County Medical Center, said her illness was “a bolt out of the blue.” She was hospitalized in early March with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, and has nearly recovered.
Three people who received the vaccine have died of heart attacks in the past week. Two were health workers and the other was a 55-year-old National Guardsman.
“I don’t think this was a predictable thing, in my case for sure,” Olson said.
Her case illustrates the emerging uncertainties around the smallpox vaccine, which may carry greater risk than experts realized. At the same time, they can’t be sure these heart problems didn’t have other causes.
Federal officials on Tuesday warned for the first time that people with heart disease should not get the smallpox vaccine until further investigation. Both of the health workers who died and the Guardsmen had risk factors for heart disease. On Friday, a federal advisory committee said it was considering excluding anyone older than age 50 from the vaccine program.
But Olson says even those warnings probably wouldn’t have helped her. “I have a couple of risk factors, but otherwise nothing that would tell you I had heart disease,” she said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued the warning after seven cases of sudden heart problems among the 25,645 health workers who had been vaccinated between January and March 21. Another 10 military cases were reported this week.
Until now, experts said the vaccine carried a one in a million chance of causing death, primarily from bloodstream infections. But that estimate didn’t take into account the possible link to heart disease.
Olson says she has little doubt the vaccine was to blame.
She received the vaccine on Feb. 26, two weeks after Minnesota started its vaccine program for health workers.