Smallpox vaccines headed to Pacific
YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The Pacific’s first smallpox vaccines are expected to arrive at Yokota Air Base by Jan. 31.
Health officials said medical personnel will be the first to be vaccinated.
“We’ll initially be sent between 100 and 200 doses, but how much we’ll eventually need is still undetermined,” said Maj. Alice Chapman, public health flight commander, 374th Medical Group.
The Bush administration is preparing for war against Iraq and says President Saddam Hussein may possess stocks of the smallpox virus. Last month, President Bush announced a plan that will vaccinate military and civilian medical personnel who would treat patients in a smallpox attack or outbreak.
Chapman said the vaccine was sent to Air Force bases worldwide around Jan. 13. At Yokota, the first smallpox inoculations probably will be administered in early February, “assuming we get our vaccine by the end of the month,” Chapman said.
But officials at Misawa Air Base and Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base said this week they have yet to receive the vaccine. No timetables have been established.
In response to a query, officials at Okinawa’s Kadena Air Base wrote in an e-mail to Stripes: “At this time we cannot discuss details of the smallpox vaccination program.”
But an article this week in Kadena’s base paper, the Shogun, reported that the 18th Medical Group will begin vaccinations for Air Force members at Kadena later this month.
Maj. Scott Hebrink, 18th Medical Group Public Health Flight commander, was quoted as saying that the first to be vaccinated will be more than three dozen members of the medical group — those the Air Force calls vaccinator cadres — who will be responsible for giving the vaccine to other Air Force members at Kadena.
The cadre members at Kadena and a smallpox medical team at Camp Lester top the priority list on Okinawa. They will be followed by other priority groups as the Defense Department continues implementing the program, the Shogun quotes Hebrink as saying.
Shots for noncadre members, to begin after the cadre vaccinations are complete, will continue for at least a year until all active-duty Air Force members at Kadena are vaccinated, the base newspaper said.
The Air Force is using a prescreening questionnaire to determine who might be exempt from the vaccination, Hebrink told the Shogun. The form is available under the “Forms” icon at the DOD smallpox Web site: www.smallpox.army.mil/resource. Anyone who answers “yes” or “unsure” to a question on the form will not receive the vaccine without further medical evaluation, Hebrink is quoted as saying.
U.S. Forces Korea officials would not comment on the smallpox vaccinations, but cited the DOD directive to vaccinate military medical personnel against smallpox. A contagious virus that can be deadly, smallpox was long ago wiped out in its naturally occurring form, but defense officials fear that it may be used as a biological weapon by some countries or terrorists.
Routine childhood smallpox vaccination ended in 1972. Though the military continued to vaccinate troops until 1984 — recruits until 1990 — the vaccine loses its effectiveness over time, Chapman said.
“People who got it as children prior to 1972 are not considered to still be immune,” she said.
The vaccine is mandatory for military medical personnel and servicemembers tasked with “critical missions that put them at risk,” Chapman said, such as those deploying to a high-threat area, unless they qualify for an administrative or medical exemption.
The group of nonmedical personnel at Yokota who will receive the vaccine has not yet been identified, Chapman said.
Other military personnel outside those categories may be vaccinated, as well, but Chapman would not say whether all servicemembers would be immunized against smallpox.
“The plan is to expand the vaccination program to other military personnel as the risk dictates and the availability of the vaccine dictates,” she said.
Initially, Chapman said about 30 to 40 health workers at Yokota will be vaccinated: immunization personnel and a smallpox medical team.
All Air Force in-patient medical facilities must designate a team to respond to a smallpox outbreak or attack, Chapman said. The team would treat smallpox patients and try to contain the spread of the disease.
The vaccination will consist of one shot with a booster shot every 10 years.
There’s been no guidance on vaccinating Department of Defense civilians, including spouses and children, Chapman said.
The government is not recommending the general public be vaccinated.
“Our government has no information that a biological attack is imminent, and there are significant side effects and risks associated with the vaccine,” stated a recent White House news release.
For adult civilians who want to be vaccinated, the Department of Health and Human Services is making an unlicensed vaccine available this year, and a licensed vaccine available in 2004.
At Yokota, for civilians, or military members who don’t qualify for the vaccine, “there may be an opportunity for that,” Chapman said. “We have to assess what our vaccine needs are and what are vaccine supply is.”