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Union says smallpox plan falls short

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- The nation's largest union of health care workers said Tuesday a smallpox vaccination plan being considered by the Bush administration would not do enough to protect such workers.

Under the plan, the government would vaccinate millions of Americans who could come into contact with the disease in a bioterrorist attack.

In the first round, the government would vaccinate 500,000 people with a high risk of exposure, including emergency room workers, infectious disease specialists and intensive care workers, according to an administration official.

A second round of vaccinations would cover 7 million to 10 million more health workers, firefighters, police and first responders.

The vaccine also would be made available to the public but only through clinical trials, and the government would not recommend that anyone besides health workers and first responders take the vaccine, the official said.

According to health officials, one or two people out of every million who get the vaccine will die from it. An additional 15 people per million vaccinated for the first time will suffer life-threatening complications. Scores more will fall sick with fevers and swollen lymph nodes.

Andrew Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 1.5 million health care workers, said the union does not oppose a vaccination plan but feels the Bush plan falls short.

Stern said the union wants the government to set up a compensation fund for the families of those who die and for those who suffer permanent injuries as a result of the vaccine.

"For the protection of the country, nurses are being asked to risk their health in the line of duty," Stern said. "There should be some form of compensation, just like anyone else killed or injured in the line of duty."

He said workers also should be educated about the risks of taking the vaccine, and that those who decline to receive it should not be subject to discrimination at work.

"The whole thing is very risky, and I hope ... they're doing this because there is a real threat of bioterrorism," Stern said.

"I'm not a national security expert, I don't have access to that information, [but] I have to presume the threat real enough that it's worth the risk."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says many people -- including pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems, such as HIV patients and some people with cancer -- should not be given the vaccine.

The health care workers union wants the government to offer HIV and pregnancy screenings for those who volunteer to be vaccinated.

Jerome Hauer, an acting assistant secretary in the Department of Health and Human Services, said the government has been considering those factors for months. He said he plans to meet with union officials Wednesday morning.

Ever since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, President Bush and other top administration officials have consulted with health officials across the world to discuss the threat of a smallpox attack and the question of who should get vaccinations.

The contagious disease killed more than 15 million people a year worldwide in the 1950s. In the last century alone, smallpox claimed the lives of 500 million people around the world.

Although smallpox was declared eradicated globally in 1980 by the World Health Organization, intelligence officials say they believe Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has stores of the virus.

An attack on the United States could be devastating because the country's mass vaccination program was discontinued in 1972. About half of U.S. residents have not been vaccinated and those who have been are believed now to have limited immunity, if any.

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