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Postal, Capitol Hill workers offered vaccine

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The federal government is offering an anthrax vaccine to thousands of postal employees and Capitol Hill workers exposed to the potentially deadly bacteria, the Department of Health and Human Services announced Tuesday.

The workers also will have the option of continuing an extended course of antibiotics.

It marks the first time that the vaccine has been offered to a large civilian population, and its use would essentially amount to a clinical study. Individuals who opt to receive the vaccine would have to sign an informed-consent form, a move that would essentially relieve the manufacture of any liability.

While the government was making the offer, it pointedly was not making a recommendation.

"The decision to use this vaccine is at the discretion of the individual, in consultation with his or her physician," the department said in a press release.

The offers come as the 60-day antibiotic regimen originally prescribed for individuals exposed to anthrax spores comes to an end. Some animal studies found that live anthrax spores "may continue to reside in the longs" beyond 60 days, HHS said, although these studies also found that none of the animals developed the disease.

HHS said it was making the offers because "some individuals may wish to take extra precautions, especially those whose exposure may have been especially high."

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Two anthrax-tainted letters were sent to Capitol Hill, one to Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle and another to Sen. Patrick Leahy, although the latter was intercepted before it reached Leahy's office. Other anthrax-laced letters were sent to NBC News and the New York Post.

Eighteen anthrax infections -- including five fatal cases -- have been confirmed since the letters began turning up in the mail in early October.

Federal health officials said it was impossible to know how many people would take the government up on the vaccine offer. Roughly 10,000 people have been prescribed antibiotics for possible exposure to anthrax and health officials said a fraction of that group could be expected to ask for the vaccine.

Dr. D.A. Henderson, the government's top bioterrorism adviser, said less than 3,000 people within that group were probably exposed to high levels of anthrax spores.

Most of those who were prescribed antibiotics are Capitol Hill workers who were in the vicinity when an athrax-laced letter was opened in Daschle's office. Postal workers who processed that letter and three others were also among those given antibiotics.

Dr. John Eisold, the capitol physician, said some 75 Capitol Hill staffers and police officers will be offered the vaccine. The vaccine is given in three shots, one every two weeks, Eisold said.

Federal health officials conceded that they have little information to know whether using the vaccine in this fashion -- after exposure -- will be effective. The military and scientists have used the vaccine, but before exposure.

The chief side effect, according to the officials, is redness and swelling at the injection site.

Officials said the vaccine would be available to Capitol Hill workers as soon as Wednesday. The vaccine is also available immediately for postal workers, but they said that the U.S. Postal Service has said it wants to wait a week to educate employees about their options.

Those who choose the vaccine will also be given an additional 40-day treatment of antibiotics.

The other two options are to only take the 40-day supply of antibiotics or simply finish the current 60-day regimen and monitor for illness.

Daschle said he welcomed the government's offer.

"I support that decision," Daschle said. "Many of my staff are directly affected and I think it is a wise course of action simply because of the unknowns, because of the uncertainty."

But Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, a physician who has taken an active role in the treatment for anthrax on Capitol Hill, is skeptical of the vaccine as a widespread treatment.

"The vaccine is a dated vaccine, it's an old vaccine. There are very real and potentially serious side effects from the vaccine and anyone who elects to receive the vaccine needs to be made aware of that," said Frist.

"I do not recommend widespread inoculation for people with the vaccine in the Hart Building," he said. "There are too many side effects and if there is limited chance of exposure the side effects would far outweigh any potential advantage."

For people who have had direct exposure, it is "reasonable to consider" the vaccine, Frist said.




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