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Union won't oppose smallpox plan

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Representatives of the nation's largest union of health care workers Wednesday said they will not oppose a government plan to vaccinate medical workers for smallpox, although they still have serious safety concerns about it.

The announcement came after meeting with top federal health officials. President Bush is prepared to announce in coming days the first large-scale smallpox vaccinations in more than two decades -- a controversial plan because the vaccine can bring side effects -- including, in rare cases, death.

"The meeting was productive, positive and continuing," a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said.

Under the plan, about 500,000 health care workers will get the smallpox vaccination, followed up by a second wave of vaccinations for 7 million to 10 million other health workers, firefighters, police and first responders, according to a top government official.

Andrew Stern, the president of the Service Employees International Union, which represents 1.5 million health care workers, said union members will be encouraged to take the vaccine.

However, he listed several issues of concern:

• What if a worker gets sick from the vaccine, needs to be hospitalized and has no health insurance, or has a $1,000 deductible? Who pays the bill?

• What if a worker gets vaccinated and his child touches the vaccination site and falls ill? Who picks up the cost?

• Who pays for screening tests?

"It's clear they [health officials] understand the risks involved here," Stern said. "But there's no plan to pay for them, except to hope that people's insurance, or the people themselves, will be able to pay for it."

He added that the government has not "dealt with real life issues" in its planning.

However, government officials have said that is not true, that the administration has spent more than a year consulting health officials across the globe and agonizing over whether to vaccinate people.

"Issues raised by Andrew Stern are issues we have been thinking about since the very beginning," the HHS spokesman said.

The health risks

According to health officials, one or two people out of every million who get the vaccine will die from it.

"At the end of the day, people will die," one official said.

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.

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.

Under Bush's vaccination plan, according to one health official, the vaccine will 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.

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

Although smallpox was eradicated in 1980, intelligence officials have said they believe Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has stores of the virus. A release of the virus in the United States could be devastating because vaccinations stopped in 1972. About half of U.S. residents have never been vaccinated, and those who were vaccinated are believed to now have limited immunity if any.

-- CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and producer Miriam Falco contributed to this report.

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