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A Needed Shot in the Dark

January 22, 2003

No one has a foolproof way of steeling Americans against the very real dangers that bioweapons pose. The Bush administration's campaign to eliminate smallpox as a potent option for terrorists, however, is by and large a reasonable effort worthy of support.

Last month, the administration began phase one -- mandatory vaccinations of half a million military personnel. It had hoped to begin phase two -- voluntary inoculations of half a million police, fire and emergency medical specialists -- on Friday.

Few of those so-called first responders, however, are likely to see their upper arms poked by vaccine-laden needles soon, however, because of growing, if mostly misplaced, legal and safety concerns.

Some hospitals are exercising reasonable caution -- delaying inoculations, for instance, until they are sure they have enough staffing to cope with the side effects the vaccine can cause. And county public health officials can't be blamed for delaying their programs until federal authorities complete guidelines, expected early next month, on how to safely administer the vaccine.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson should ensure that those safety measures are thorough, based on a frank disclosure of any adverse effects military doctors have noticed since they began the inoculations.

Still, there is a world of difference between hospitals and counties endeavoring to vaccinate their workers cautiously and the recent bleatings from more self-interested employee unions and hospitals. Some hospitals, for instance, say they won't even think of vaccinating until they are guaranteed they will be held blameless for any harm the vaccine might cause.

There is no hard evidence that anyone is about to unleash smallpox on Americans. However, Bush administration officials have shown that Iraq, North Korea and others hostile to the United States may have tried to acquire smallpox strains that Soviet scientists weaponized decades ago.

There's nothing sacred about the Friday start date. Doctors and hospitals are right to proceed cautiously with smallpox vaccinations. They should realize, however, that ultimately there may be no risk-free way of protecting Americans from bioterrorism. At some point, health-care workers on the front lines will have to take a small, if well-considered, leap of faith.

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