Smallpox is the worst disease known to man?it killed half a billion people from 1880 to 1980, before it was finally eradicated in 1980. But the smallpox vaccine can be deadly too, and that's the problem we face today. Scientists say it's the most dangerous vaccine ever invented. Should the U.S. population be given a vaccine that can cause dangerous, sometimes fatal reactions?
The vaccine used today is essentially the same as the one created in 1796. Dr. Paul Offit says, "We tend to think of vaccines as being very safe and every effective, which they are. But all the vaccines that we use today are the result of modern technology. That?s not true of the smallpox vaccine. It has a side effect profile that we would not accept for vaccines today."
No one is certain how many people will be hurt by smallpox vaccinations. A 1969 study found that 74 people out of every million vaccinated will suffer serious complications, and at least one of them will die. The smallpox vaccine is made from a weak biological cousin of the smallpox virus. If you scratch your skin over the vaccination and put then touch your eye, you can transfer the smallpox there. This happens in about 500 people, for every million who are vaccinated. In these cases, the virus continues to grow, can cause death.
Israel has already vaccinated 15,000 medical and military personnel against smallpox, and only one person had serious side effects. But this works out to a rate of about 66 cases per million people vaccinated, and U.S. health authorities predicted a lower rate than this.
U.S. health care workers and military will be vaccinated with old stocks of the vaccine, made from the skin of live animals. Later vaccinations of civilians will use the new vaccine, grown in modern cell cultures. Tests of the new vaccine show that it?s as effective as the old one?and is also just as dangerous. Several Americans vaccinated against anthrax under the mandatory military program are now suing the government for damages they say were caused by the vaccine.
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