On March 24, the Mendocino County Department of Public Health began administering smallpox vaccinations to select county employees who volunteered to receive them. Nursing Director Carol Whittingslow gave the first injection, then got one herself.
Four days later, the California Department of Health Services told counties throughout the state to temporarily stop giving the vaccinations after some who were injected suffered heart attacks.
The Centers for Disease Control say there have been three cases of heart attack, two of them fatal, while the Associated Press lists the number of fatalities at three.
It is not known whether the smallpox vaccinations contributed to the incidents, but California is among several states that have decided to err on the side of caution by suspending the vaccinations pending further guidance from the federal government.
According to the CDC, the vaccinations may contribute to other heart-related problems as well.
“There is evidence,” reads a warning on the CDC Web site, “suggesting that smallpox vaccination may cause cases of heart inflammation (myocarditis), inflammation of the membrane covering the heart (pericarditis), and a combination of these two problems (myopericarditis).”
Whittingslow says she’s not worried, and does not regret volunteering to receive the inoculation.
“As a medical professional,” the nursing director said, “I know when anything like this occurs they have to investigate it and make sure there is some cause and effect process happening. It is my understanding that, of the people who have had problems with their heart after the smallpox vaccine, (most) had pre-existing heart conditions I don’t have any history of heart disease, and I watch my diet and I exercise, so at this point I’m not concerned.”
Whittingslow said she had not heard from anyone else who was concerned about it either.
Nonetheless, she acknowledged the county had halted its vaccination program for the time being.
“We did not do any vaccines at all this week and have no plans to do anymore until they clear it. That is prudent…There were, I believe, a couple of people who had problems with inflammation of the heart and they recovered and then there were three people who had heart attacks and two of them died,” Whittingslow said, citing CDC figures.
Before county employees could volunteer for the vaccination, they had to be screened to rule out pre-existing health conditions that could lead to adverse reactions.
Heart-related conditions, however, were not listed among the risk factors.
“The state has now changed all of the screening forms and (they) will be if we start again,” said Whittingslow.
Calls to Public Health’s Communicable Disease Control Officer Linda Brawley seeking further information were not returned by press time.