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Vaccine Made Some People Sick

Several in Southland missed work after receiving smallpox immunization. Officials say they've seen nothing unexpected.

May 06, 2003|Jeff Gottlieb | Times Staff Writer

About 7.5% of more than 300 public health workers in Southern California who volunteered to receive smallpox vaccinations earlier this year became sick enough to miss a day or two of work.

None of them became seriously ill, health care officials in six counties said. The workers complained of symptoms similar to the flu, including fever, muscle aches and headaches -- complications that were expected to occur among some of those inoculated, officials said.

The officials added that they had seen nothing unexpected since widespread vaccinations were begun across the state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had said one to two people per million would die as a result of vaccinations given to protect against bioterrorism, and 1,000 people per million would suffer serious reactions that were not life-threatening.

According to the CDC, 53 people across the country have suffered serious problems from the vaccination.

The majority have involved the spread of the vaccine virus to another part of the body or an inflammation of the membrane around the heart.

Dr. Alvin Nelson El Amin, medical director of Los Angeles County's immunization program, said the number of health-care providers suffering serious reactions was minimal, because people with some medical problems were excluded from vaccination.

Those include people with eczema, immune system-compromising conditions such as cancer and AIDS, or a heart condition. Pregnant women and nursing mothers also were ineligible.

"The side effects have been studied and looked at and probably overblown," said Dr. Bob Levin, Ventura County's public health officer.

More than 34,000 civilians have been vaccinated nationally, according to the CDC. Three have died, two of heart attacks and one of an unknown cause. Levin said that according to the CDC, the heart attacks may have been unrelated to the vaccination.

Health departments across the nation vaccinated "first responders" who would help those stricken in a bioterrorism attack.

Those included doctors, nurses, social workers, epidemiologists, and even office assistants.

Because of the risks associated with the vaccine, it was given on a volunteer basis. Only a small number of workers stepped forward. After county health care workers were vaccinated, the program moved on to private hospitals that might treat infectious patients. Because of the risks, some hospitals decided not to take part.

Smallpox is a highly contagious, often fatal disease. The last U.S. case was recorded in 1949. The world's last case was in Somalia in 1977. Childhood vaccinations have since been halted.

The Bush administration, however, feared that terrorist groups and countries such as Iraq and North Korea held stockpiles of the disease that could be used as a weapon.

Of the 319 health workers vaccinated in six Southern California counties, 24 have missed work.

In Ventura County, for example, 98 public health workers have been vaccinated, but none has missed work, Levin said. Los Angeles County vaccinated about 65 people, with an estimated six missing a day or two of work. Of 49 Orange County public health employees vaccinated, four missed work.

Eight of 43 San Diego County workers immunized missed work. In San Bernardino County, three of the 40 immunized missed work.

Twenty-four people who work for the Riverside County Department of Public Health were vaccinated, with three of them missing a total of 5 1/2 days of work.

"It's about what we expected," said Barbara Cole, the director of disease control for the county.

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