MINNEAPOLIS (AP) -- A Minnesota scientist who is a leading bioterrorism adviser to the Bush administration says he's not surprised some hospitals and health workers in Minnesota and elsewhere are reluctant to get smallpox vaccine.
But Michael Osterholm also says critics of the plan are shortsighted -- especially hospitals that want to wait until there's an outbreak to vaccinate employees.
"I can guarantee you that if smallpox were to hit anywhere in the world today, there would be a mad rush for smallpox vaccine," said Osterholm, a University of Minnesota professor and former Minnesota state epidemiologist.
Osterholm has watched in frustration as a growing number of hospitals nationwide have opted out of the first phase of the vaccine program, which is scheduled to begin in Minnesota on Wednesday when about 50 state Health Department workers receive the vaccination.
About 2,700 Minnesota workers have volunteered, with 1,700 or so actually slated to get the vaccine in the next several weeks at nine locations around the state, the Health Department said Monday.
In Minnesota, 24 of 66 eligible hospitals have opted out of the smallpox plan, but state epidemiologist Harry Hull said those hospitals have plans in place in case of an attack. County health officials also are coordinating response plans, Hull said.
Resistance to the vaccination has been largely over concerns on its side effects and the possible risk to employees and patients. While the vaccine cannot cause smallpox, it can have serious side effects, from flulike symptoms to potentially deadly infections. Even those who aren't vaccinated can get sick through close contact with someone who was.
As of Thursday, only 687 volunteers in 16 states had been vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Osterholm said failing to offer the vaccine to hospital workers carries its own risks.
"I don't care if the only smallpox case in the country is in New York City," Osterholm said. "Tens of thousands of people will rush into emergency rooms ... thinking they have it."
If no one on staff is vaccinated, he warned, hospitals could be overwhelmed. "It will be the perfect storm," he said.
Hull said the goal in Minnesota is to get a core group of people vaccinated "so we will be able to act effectively and efficiently if, God forbid, there is a smallpox attack."
The state Health Department received 4,500 doses of vaccine last week from the CDC. Osterholm helped design a three-phase smallpox plan that includes vaccinating as many as 500,000 health workers.
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