Health officials are recommending that people with heart disease not get vaccinated against smallpox as authorities investigate a possible link between the vaccine and heart problems.
The vaccination has never been associated with heart problems before, but the warning and the investigation came Tuesday, after a Maryland woman died of a heart attack and six others became ill after being inoculated.
“I think we want to err on the side of safety,” said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Gerberding emphasized that officials do not know whether there is a connection and said the national vaccination program, off to a slow start, must move forward to prepare for the possibility of a bioterror attack with smallpox.
“The potential for terrorism has probably never been higher,” she said.
Three of the seven people under investigation suffered heart attacks, including the Maryland woman who died, another woman who is now on life support and a third woman who was hospitalized and released. All three were health-care or public-health workers in their 50s.
Two other people developed angina, or chest pain.
All five of these patients had risk factors for heart disease before the vaccination, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension or use of tobacco, Gerberding said.
The other two patients under investigation suffered from heart inflammation. Additionally, 10 people vaccinated through the military program had the same condition.
Gerberding said she does not expect to find a link between the heart trouble and the vaccine but wants further study before ruling it out.
“It could be entirely coincidental,” she said. “Coronary artery disease is a very common condition in our society.”
The vaccine carries well-documented side effects, but they have never included heart problems.