Deaths linked to pox shots

CDC says some people should avoid smallpox vaccine.

BY TRAVIS DUNN | BALTIMORE | April 1, 2003


The heart-attack deaths of two nurses and a National Guardsman, coming just days after the three received smallpox vaccinations, has prompted the Center for Disease Control to suggest persons who have a history of heart problems not receive the vaccine.

Andrea Deerheart Cornitcher, 56, a nurse at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, MD, was the first to die after receiving a smallpox shot. She received her shot March 18, and died five days later in Virginia.

Lucy Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health, said doctors had determined the shot was not "the primary factor in her death," but they did not rule out the possibility that the vaccination might have played an indirect role.

The death of the three people, all of whom were in their 50s, is not the only bad reaction that may be connected with the vaccinations. According to the CDC, six other health care workers around the country have exhibited heart problems after receiving the shot, out of the more than 25,000 who have received the vaccination since the program began two months ago. Some military personnel--10 soldiers out of 350,000 vaccinated--have also reported heart problems.

Because of these seven civilian cases, the CDC has warned health care workers not to vaccinate anyone who has a history of heart problems.

"They're being extremely cautious just to be sure," Caldwell said.

"We promised to closely monitor this program and to put safety first, so we are exercising exceptional caution," said Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the CDC. "If our investigation shows this precautionary measure should become permanent or the need for other changes or enhancements in the civilian smallpox vaccination program, we will take immediate action."

Caldwell said it is difficult for doctors to make any definite causal connections between the shots and the ill-health, mainly because all the data on the subject pertains to the vaccination of children--and that practice stopped in the 1970s, after smallpox had been eradicated.

The statistics from that period showed that one or two people died, out of every million vaccinated, according to the CDC. Between 14 and 52 per million exhibited serious health problems, ranging from rashes to encephalitis.

But none of those studies showed any correlation between the vaccinations and heart problems. But, as Caldwell pointed out, those statistics pertained to vaccinated children, and not to adults, some of whom are well past middle-age.

The potential hazards of the vaccination program has also raised thorny political questions. Debate is currently raging in Washington on how the handful of vaccinated people you do have bad reactions should be compensated by the federal government.

Kathy Roeder, spokewoman for the AFL-CIO, which represents many health-care workers, said her organization is concerned that the federal government will not provide adequate help to people who have adverse reactions to the vaccine.

Roeder said a current plan, introduced by Congressman Richard Burr of North Carolina, would said a cap on the amount these affected people could receive -- a lifetime maximum of $50,000 for those injured by the vaccination, and $262,000 for those disabled or killed by the shot.

Roeder also said the Burr proposal would place an unfair time limits on people making claims.

But the recent death of Cornitcher and the warning issued by the CDC have led to caution in Congress: a vote on vaccination compensation, planned for the last full week in March, was postponed.


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