Vaccinating doctors against smallpox seems like a wise and relatively easy way to reduce potential bio-terrorism threats at first glance. But as three Boston hospitals have realized, the vaccine brings up a host of questions regarding liability issues, side effects and budget priorities.
Massachusetts General Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Children’s Hospital have not yet committed to President Bush’s campaign to vaccinate 500,000 medical workers. By waiting for more information and answers, the hospitals are rightly showing caution before jumping on Bush’s bandwagon.
The vaccine requires stabbing a tiny area of the arm 15 times with a fairly large two-pronged needle, but that is not even the most painful part of the vaccine. Normal reactions include scabbing, muscle ache, headache, nausea, fatigue and fever. Statistics indicate that if Bush succeeds in getting the half million doctors and nurses vaccinated, one might die, seven to 26 would have potentially fatal reactions and 500 would have reactions more serious than the already considerable side effects of a normal reaction.
These risks also bring up liability issues that Boston hospitals understandably want resolved before committing. If these hospital workers are unable to perform their important jobs, the government must decide who will pay their salaries until they can return to work.
Clearly, smallpox vaccinations bring up complex issues and the country should consider whether these actions are worth protecting against a theoretical threat.
Ultimately, protecting doctors and their patients against smallpox is one of the few available ways to concretely deter and reduce terrorist threats. However, these vaccines should remain voluntary and their risks must be stated clearly. It should be each doctor’s personal choice, and the Boston hospitals should consult their staff for opinions while they continue to wait for more answers about issues surrounding smallpox vaccines.
University Wire — Boston U.