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Elizabeth Cohen: Medical field split on smallpox vaccine

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CNN's Elizabeth Cohen

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Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences in covering news around the world.

CNN medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen filed this report Friday from the University of Connecticut Health Center, site of the first public smallpox vaccination program in 30 years.

FARMINGTON, Connecticut (CNN) The medical field is divided into two camps.

The first camp says, "I'm going to roll up my sleeves, I want this vaccination. If there is a smallpox attack, I need to be prepared so I can take care of patients."

The other camp says, "You know, I don't think a smallpox attack is likely. The president hasn't given me a good argument. I'm not going to take the health risks associated with the vaccine when I don't think there is going to be a smallpox attack."

So people are divided, and there are very intelligent and reasonable people on both sides.

Today I saw the folks who said "This is my duty as a doctor or a nurse to do this. It's my duty as a citizen to do this."

There are many other responsible, smart doctors and nurses whom I've talked to during the past few months who don't want to get the vaccine. They don't feel that there's a threat of smallpox attack, and the vaccine carries a serious risk.

The numbers are that for every one million people who are vaccinated, one person will die, 14 will get a life-threatening illness and 48 will get a serious illness. So not everyone is choosing to take the risk.

I watched three doctors who were vaccinated today. As they were getting vaccinated, you saw this little needle. It's not like a regular vaccination. It's not like the kind where you take your kid to get his measles shot -- it's not like that at all.

It's a little needle that's bifurcated at the end, so that it has two points. A health care worker dips it into the vaccine, and he or she pokes the person getting vaccinated 15 times in a circle. Then gauze is put over the site, and then a huge bandage goes over the gauze.

The reason for the huge bandage is because the vaccination site is contagious. If someone were to come up and touch it, they could get sick, so doctors want to protect it well.

The three doctors didn't even flinch, and they said they felt fine. They said they felt a little tingling in their arm.

If they were going to get sick from this, they wouldn't feel sick for several days.

There was one doctor I talked to who said he does plan to get vaccinated but he doesn't want to do it today. The reason is that he has a big presentation to do Monday and Tuesday, so he didn't want to feel ill for it. So people are timing the vaccination so that if they do feel sick, they'll get sick at a time when they can stay home.

The vaccine can make you feel like you have the flu, and it can give you swollen lymph nodes. It can give you a fever. Your arm can feel very sore.

I said to one of the three doctors who was vaccinated today, "You know a lot of people disagree with you." And he said, "I completely respect their opinion."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sent information to local and state health departments and posted it on the Internet, and what you will see in the coming weeks and months is more meetings and more discussions about the vaccine's benefits and risks.

In some states, starting today in Connecticut, if a health care worker wants to be vaccinated and the state feels he or she should be vaccinated, the worker can volunteer and will be screened.

There are all sorts of medical conditions that you might have or that someone in your close family might have that would keep you from getting the vaccine. Doctors are screening close family members, not just family history, because it is possible for someone to touch the vaccine site and get sick. It's improbable but it's possible.

And so if a doctor's wife is pregnant, he should not get the vaccine. If a nurse's husband is undergoing chemotherapy, she should not get the vaccine. There's a long permission form.

Each state will implement the program with its own rules. The whole thing is voluntary, and that is very important. The states decide how many people they want to immunize.


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