ATLANTA — A government advisory panel rejected smallpox vaccinations for the general public Thursday, instead proposing that the shots be given to special teams of people in each state who would be designated the first to respond in case of a bioterrorism attack.
The recommendation by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which sets U.S. vaccine policy, came after two days of hearings on the threat of a smallpox attack versus the dangerous side effects of the vaccine.
The recommendation is subject to approval by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.
Currently, smallpox vaccinations are given only to scientists who handle the virus. But federal health officials asked the panel to reconsider after Sept. 11 and the anthrax-by-mail attacks.
Under the plan proposed Thursday, states would designate smallpox response teams — probably including doctors, disease detectives, nurses, lab workers and law enforcement officers — who would be first to investigate a suspected terrorist release of the virus. These teams would be vaccinated against the deadly virus.
States would also be allowed to vaccinate staff at pre-designated hospitals where patients with confirmed cases of smallpox would be treated.
The government estimates the number of people vaccinated under the plan would be in the thousands.
Vaccinating every American against the virus without a credible threat of its widespread release was judged too risky.
The vaccine can cause severe rashes, brain swelling and death, particularly in people with skin disorders and or the AIDS viruse. About 300 people would die from side effects if the whole nation were vaccinated, experts have said.