County's smallpox vaccination plans set

September 24, 2002|by SCOTT BUTKI

The Washington County Health Department has developed a contingency plan for vaccinating local residents in the event of a regional outbreak of smallpox, Health Officer William Christoffel said Monday.

Work on the plan, which can be used to prepare for any form of biological terrorism, began earlier this year in response to anthrax threats, he said.

The plan is a precautionary move - there is no expectation that the area will suffer a smallpox outbreak, he said. Should there be a smallpox outbreak, it would be more likely to originate in Baltimore or Washington, D.C., he said.


Federal officials on Monday sent states detailed guidelines for vaccinating their entire populations against the highly contagious smallpox should the deadly disease break out as the result of an act of terrorism.

The plan provides instructions for how to vaccinate the U.S. population within days, should it become necessary. No decisions have been made about the circumstances under which those plans would be activated, officials said.

Washington County is "ahead of the curve," having already developed a plan as a result of meetings the Health Department had with area emergency workers and the Washington County Hospital over anthrax threats, Christoffel said.

He said the county would fine-tune its plan to follow federal guidelines.

The Washington County plan calls for two possibilities: Immunizing those people most likely to contract the disease and trying to immunize almost the entire population, he said.

Under the first possibility, about 150 people - emergency workers and Washington County Hospital employees - would be given the vaccine for smallpox, he said.

Under the second scenario, the county would give the vaccine to as many people as possible, excluding people with compromised immune systems and dermatological issues because of concerns of side effects, he said.

Christoffel is to meet with the Washington County Commissioners about bioterrorism and other issues at 4 p.m. today during a semi-annual Board of Health meeting. The meeting is at the commissioners meeting room at 100 W. Washington St.

Should the Health Department have to try to vaccinate the entire population of about 130,000 on its own, it could take a few months, Christoffel said. Vaccinations could be distributed faster if local physicians also helped, he said.

The plan identifies sites where the vaccinations would be distributed but those locations are not being made public, he said.

About 1 percent of those vaccinated for smallpox likely would suffer serious side effects, which can include death, he said.

The incubation period for smallpox is about 12 days following exposure, according to a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Internet site. Initial symptoms include high fever, fatigue, and head and back aches, the site said. A characteristic rash, most prominent on the face, arms, and legs, follows in two to three days.

The highly contagious disease has not been seen in this country for decades and routine vaccinations ended in 1971. Although smallpox was declared eradicated in 1980, experts fear that hostile nations or terrorist groups may have acquired the virus and could release it on a population that now harbors very little natural immunity.

The smallpox vaccine offers protection against the disease even if administered after someone is exposed, as long as they get the shot within a few days.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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