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Bush Announces Preexposure Smallpox Vaccination Program

Kate Traynor

President Bush announced today that the nation will resume the use of the smallpox vaccine in people who are at the greatest risk of exposure to an intentional release of the virus.

"I am ordering that the military and other personnel who serve America in high-risk parts of the world receive the smallpox vaccine," Bush said during a televised press conference. News reports have estimated that the presidential order applies to about 500,000 members of the U.S. armed forces.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the vaccine will also be offered to some Americans who work at embassies abroad.

Bush emphasized several times during his brief announcement that there is no evidence that a smallpox attack is an imminent threat to the United States.

In a gesture of solidarity with military personnel who will face the health risks posed by smallpox vaccination, Bush said that he, but not his staff or family, will also receive the vaccine. Bush's plan does not include vaccination of the general public, although the president said that efforts would be made to accommodate people who "insist on being vaccinated now."

According to CDC, private citizens who want to be vaccinated may do so next year with an unlicensed vaccine, or they can wait until 2004, when a licensed vaccine is expected to be available.

In addition to mandating the vaccination of military personnel, the plan calls for the voluntary vaccination of medical professionals who Bush said "could be on the front lines of a biological attack." He said the government will ensure that these so-called first responders have "the medical advice they need to make an informed decision" about vaccination.

Vaccination of health care workers is to be orchestrated by the Department of Health and Human Services in conjunction with state and local governments. As part of this effort, CDC announced on Dec. 12 that the agency had completed its initial review of the preexposure smallpox plans prepared by all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and other U.S. jurisdictions.

According to CDC, its initial review of the preexposure plans indicated that about 450,000 health care workers will be eligible for smallpox vaccination when the vaccine becomes available. CDC stated that state health officials named more than 3300 health care facilities that will participate in the preexposure vaccination program.

CDC emphasized that vaccination of smallpox-response team members is voluntary and that team members "will make their own decision on whether or not to receive the vaccine."