Self-inflicted injury

April 03, 2003|By SUN STAFF

EVER WONDER if there are America-haters out there somewhere laughing up their sleeves at the damage we are doing to ourselves in the cause of thwarting terrorism?

The nation has yielded much in the name of security since Sept. 11, 2001 - convenience, privacy, civil liberties, lots of treasure. The enormous human and political costs of the war with Iraq might also be added.

One obvious place to draw the line is the needless risk imposed upon health care workers by pressuring them to accept a smallpox vaccine that poses a more certain danger than the threat of a smallpox attack.

House Democrats wisely blocked a Bush administration effort this week to build enthusiasm for the program by offering to compensate those disabled or killed by the vaccine. Democrats argued that the $262,000 in maximum payoff to a victim or the victim's heirs was too little.

But the larger question is whether the vaccination program should proceed at all. Much more research remains to be done about the potential risks of the shot so that the most vulnerable candidates can be alerted.

So far, three people in their 50s - including a nurse from Salisbury - have died of heart attacks after receiving smallpox vaccinations, prompting alarm about the risk factors of age and heart condition.

But those deaths only added to existing fears about what might result among even young and healthy individuals exposed to a live virus that the American Nurses Association says has the worst record of negative side effects of any vaccine in the world.

Danger of contagion imperils not only those vaccinated but also their families, friends and associates through secondary contact. Little wonder voluntary participation in the program has so far registered only about 10 percent of the half-million medical personnel the Bush administration had hoped would come forward by now.

Defeat of the House compensation bill, which Republican leaders smugly tried to bully through on a fast-track procedure, provides the perfect opportunity for a time-out. Eleven states - not yet including Maryland - have already suspended their smallpox vaccination programs; the rest of the nation should follow their lead.

Fears of a smallpox attack may well be valid, and perhaps a vaccination program could resume once the government determines the safest possible way to administer it. Adequate compensation to injured health care workers also should be provided.

But the lesson of the building SARS epidemic is that no matter how well protected we think we are, there's always some new danger lurking around the corner - laughing up its sleeve.

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