The Smallpox Slowdown

Article excerpt

Byline: The Register-Guard

If the Bush administration still believes that smallpox immunization is an important part of the nation's strategy to protect itself against bioterrorism, it will have to do a better job of persuading people to line up for the shots. For reasons that seem sensible, the public health and emergency response workers who have been asked to volunteer for vaccinations have stayed away in droves.

The logic of immunization is that people accept a degree of risk to avoid a greater danger to themselves or society. The risk of harmful side effects from the vaccine is small but serious - about 40 in 1 million have life-threatening reactions, and one or two die. The Bush administration has not convinced people that the risk of a smallpox outbreak is great enough to warrant even the slight risk - not to mention the discomfort and inconvenience - that immunization entails.

The Bush administration had planned to immunize 450,000 health-care and emergency services workers against smallpox, creating a core group of protected people who could respond to a smallpox outbreak. Only 38,000 have volunteered so far, including just 115 in Oregon.

The federal government attempted to allay one obstacle to immunization by creating a program to compensate people who suffer harmful side effects after receiving the smallpox vaccine. But President Bush signed the legislation on May 1, and progress toward the goal of 450,000 immunizations has not improved - nationwide, according to The Washington Post, only 50 to 100 people are being immunized each week.

The problem is that a smallpox shot is perceived as insurance against an event whose possibility seems vanishingly remote. The last naturally occurring case of smallpox was recorded in 1977. …