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Democrats: Smallpox vaccination plan needs retooling

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Eyeing a national smallpox vaccination program they say is stalled, House Democrats are urging the U.S. government to reinvigorate the plan for health-care workers if officials still believe terrorists may use smallpox as a weapon.

The White House unveiled a plan more than a year ago calling for vaccinations of as many as half a million health-care workers on a voluntary basis within a month. But in the time since the announcement, fewer than 40,000 medical personnel have been vaccinated nationwide.

"Either the administration needs to tell the country that smallpox is not an urgent threat, or it needs to take immediate action to get us prepared," said U.S. Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas.

Under the plan, 500,000 medical professionals were to be vaccinated on a voluntary basis within 30 days before the program's expansion to up to 10 million additional health workers and first responders.

Last spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it no longer had a deadline for the first stage of the program. The CDC also said having as few as 50,000 vaccinated health workers nationwide would provide sufficient capacity to respond to a smallpox attack.

Turner and other Democrats on the House Select Committee on Homeland Security said the program failed because the Bush administration did not devote sufficient resources and did not have a compensation program in place for people who suffered side effects from the vaccinations when they first began.

The group also said the administration failed to persuade health-care workers that smallpox was a serious threat.

Smallpox is a contagious and sometimes fatal disease. In 1980, the World Health Organization declared that it had been completely eradicated, but some laboratories still maintain samples of the virus. Security experts have said they fear terrorists could obtain the virus for use as a weapon.

When President Bush announced the smallpox vaccination program in December 2002, he said the government had "no information that a smallpox attack is imminent." But "it is prudent to prepare" for the possibility that terrorists could use diseases, he said.

While the country's stockpile of vaccine is big enough to vaccinate every American in an emergency, the Bush plan called for vaccinating only those people who would be in the front lines of a terrorist attack -- including medical professionals and emergency workers.

"These teams would immediately provide vaccine and treatment to Americans in a crisis and, to do this job effectively, members of these teams should be protected against the disease," Bush said.

The administration said it decided against a broader vaccination program because of the vaccine's possible side effects.

The Democratic report repeats many of the criticisms of an April 2003 report by the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

But the Democratic report said the change from 500,000 to 50,000 vaccinations demonstrates that "federal agencies responsible for bioterrorism preparedness appear confused and lost."

"As a result ... health-care workers and the public at large have become complacent about the smallpox threat," it said.

In March, the CDC reported that several people who had been vaccinated had suffered cardiac problems, including two who died. As a result, the CDC said it would not vaccinate people diagnosed with serious heart disease.

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