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Bush Announces Vaccination Plan

Aired December 13, 2002 - 14:07   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Now, whether or not to put a mass vaccination plan into place at all has been a subject of considerable debate these past few months. For some people, the vaccine could be just as dangerous as the virus. What would you like to know about the smallpox vaccine? You can e-mail us at
CNN Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen joins us now to kind of walk us through the risks and the benefits, and of course, to answer many e-mails -- Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Kyra, we've been told that this has been a very difficult decision for the president to make. One senior administration official said to me, we know that if we do mass vaccinations that people will die and people get injured.

That's because this is a very dangerous vaccine. If the entire United States were to choose -- everybody in the United States were to choose to get this vaccine, about 300 people would die from the vaccine.

Another 4,500 would get life-threatening illnesses. So you might say, Gee, why would anyone want to take that risk? Well, the reason is that there have been reports that Saddam Hussein has the smallpox virus, and that he may be prepared to use it as a bioweapon. If he were to do that, the results could be devastating. Smallpox is a contagious disease, spreads person-to-person, and it's vicious. It kills one out of every three people it infects, and most of the survivors are disfigured. So this is sort of a gamble, in a way.

It's a terrible disease, but it can also be a very dangerous vaccine, and what we are going to hear from the president soon, part of what he's going to discuss is, should the public get it, and we'll be anxious to hear what he has to say -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right. I know I've asked you this a million times. We talk about it a lot, but people seem to still be pretty much -- or pretty confused over whether they should get it or not. So let's go over again how should you decide whether to get the vaccine or not.

COHEN: Right. Here's how you would decide. If the president says, You know what, we're going to make this available to the public, but not recommend it, which is, indeed, what he might possibly say, then everybody would have to make a decision what they would do.

PHILLIPS: All right, Elizabeth, and I'm told the president is stepping up to the podium, so we're going to monitor that, OK? We are going to monitor that, and go to the president as soon as he starts speaking -- go ahead and continue your thought.

COHEN: OK. So everyone would have to make a decision what they would have to do. Let me give you two scenarios. Let's say you decide, you, Kyra, decide that you are going to get the smallpox vaccine.

You don't have any of these bad side effects, and Saddam Hussein attacks with smallpox next year. Well, you are going to be so glad you got that vaccine because it's going to protect you from this devastating illness.

However, let's say you get the vaccine and Saddam Hussein never attacks with smallpox, but you are one of the unlucky ones to get a side effect, and you get encephalitis. Well, you're going to be very sorry that you got the vaccine.

This is how difficult this decision is. Now the decision is a little bit easier, so to speak, for people who are first responders. If you're a doctor or a nurse in an emergency room, if there's an attack, you're going to be the ones who are going to be touching people with smallpox, who are going to be treating people with smallpox, and so you're going to be more likely to get it, and that's why the president is expected to recommend it for, perhaps, millions of first responders, because they would be in the front lines -- Kyra.

PHILLIPS: All right. Now we just got a two-minute warning, so let's head on to one more question, and that is, you've been talking to a lot of doctors and nurses; they're among the first individuals to get the shot. What have they been saying to you?

COHEN: You know what, Kyra, I have heard answers that are so passionately in opposite directions it's just amazing.

Some doctors and nurses I have talked to have said, You know what, if Saddam Hussein attacks with smallpox, I'm going to be the one who is taking care of those people, and I want to get vaccinated now. I will roll up my sleeve as soon as they offer it. And I've talked to other doctors and nurses, some of them who work in emergency rooms who say, No way, I'm not going to be a guinea pig. There are some terrible side effects from this vaccine, terrible things can happen. One to two out of every million people who get it die, another 15 out of every million will get a life threatening illness, and we don't even know if he is going to attack. Why should I get a dangerous vaccine for a disease that doesn't exist, and may not ever be used as a bioweapon. So I have heard very passionately different answers from very smart, well qualified people. It just shows you how controversial this whole issue is.

PHILLIPS: And once again, who should not get this vaccine, definitely no way?

COHEN: Right. There's not an attack now, so when we're talking about preattack vaccinations, in other words, vaccinations just in case there's an attack, there's a whole slew of people who should not get vaccines. For example, people with eczema should not get vaccinated because if you have eczema now or ever had it in your life, you could have a terrible side effect to the vaccination.

In addition, people who have any kind of immune deficiencies should not get a vaccination. HIV, for example, some people taking certain cancer drugs, because they too could have bad side effects.

And thirdly, pregnant women and people who live in households with children under the age of one. The reason for this is that the vaccine could harm you if you're pregnant, and also, when you get the vaccine, it leaves a scar, as many of us have them on our arms. Before it scars up, that site is contagious. If, let's say, a little baby were to reach out and touch the site...

PHILLIPS: All right. Elizabeth, we're going to go, the president's about to unveil the plan for the first time in more than 20 years will make the smallpox vaccine available. Let's listen in.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: ... for a variety of threats we hope will never come.

We have stepped up security at our ports and borders. We've expanded our ability to detect chemical and biological threats. We've increased support for first responders. We've made public our -- made our public health care system better able to track and treat disease.

By preparing at home and by pursuing enemies abroad we're adding to the security of our nation.

I thank the members of my team who are here who are adding to the security of our nation.

One potential danger to America is the use of the smallpox virus as a weapon of terror.

Smallpox is a deadly but preventable disease. Most Americans who are 34 or older had a smallpox vaccination when they were children. By 1972, the risk of smallpox was so remote that routine vaccinations were discontinued in the United States.

In 1980, the World Health Organization declared that smallpox had been completely eradicated, and since then there has not been a single natural case of the disease anywhere in the world.

We know, however, that the smallpox virus still exists in laboratories. And we believe that regimes hostile to the United States may possess this dangerous virus.

To protect our citizens in the aftermath of September the 11th, we are evaluating old threats in a new light.

Our government has no information that a smallpox attacks (sic) is imminent. Yet it is prudent to prepare for the possibility that terrorists who kill indiscriminately would use diseases as a weapon. Our public health agencies began preparations more than a year ago. Today, through the hard work of our Department of Health and Human Services, ably lead by Tommy Thompson, and state and local health officials, America has stockpiled enough vaccine, and is now prepared to inoculate our entire population in the event of a smallpox attacks (sic).

Americans and anyone who would think of harming Americans can be certain that this nation is ready to respond quickly and effectively to a smallpox emergency, or an increase in the level of threat.

Today I am directing additional steps to protect the health of our nation. I'm ordering that the military, and other personnel who serve America in high-risk parts of the world, receive the smallpox vaccine. Men and women who could be on the front lines of a biological attack must be protected.

This particular vaccine does involve a small risk of serious health considerations.

As commander in chief, I do not believe I can ask others to accept this risk unless I am willing to do the same. Therefore, I will receive the vaccine along with our military.

These vaccinations are a precaution only and not a response to any information concerning imminent danger.

Given the current level of threat and the inherent health risks of the vaccine, we have decided not to initiate a broader vaccination program for all Americans at this time. Neither my family nor my staff will be receiving the vaccine because our health and national security experts do not believe a vaccination is necessary for the general public.

At present, the responsible course is to make careful and thorough preparations in case a broader vaccination program should become necessary in the future.

There may be some citizens, however, who insist on being vaccinated now. Our public health agencies will work to accommodate them.

But that is not our recommendation at this time.

We do recommend vaccinations for one other group of Americans that could be on the front lines of a biological attack. We will make the vaccine available on a voluntary basis to medical professionals and emergency personnel and response teams that would be the first on the scene in a smallpox emergency.

These teams would immediately provide vaccine and treatment to Americans in a crisis. And to do this job effectively, members of these teams should be protected against the disease.

I understand that many first responders will have questions before deciding whether to be vaccinated. We will make sure they have the medical advice they need to make an informed decision. Smallpox is a serious disease and we know that our enemies are trying to inflict serious harm. Yet there is no evidence that smallpox imminently threatens this country.

We will continue taking every essential step to guard against the threats to our nation. And I deeply appreciate the good efforts of state and local health officials who are facing difficult challenges with great skill. The actions we are taking together will help safeguard the health of our people in a measured and responsible way.

Thank you all.

PHILLIPS: The president of the United States unveiling his plan that for the first time now in 30 years will make the smallpox vaccine available. Also making the announcement, a bit of a surprise announcement, that he, too, will take the vaccine along with the military. The military, of course, will be the first up. Half a million troops to get the vaccine within weeks now. Then it will move on to first responders, and that, of course, are the folks in the front lines, the police, the firefighters and healthcare workers.

Let's bring our John King back in. He's live from the White House. He was also listening to the announcement. John, did you know that he was going to announce that he, too, was going to take the vaccine with the military?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Just moments before the event, Kyra, told by a senior administration official that that was the president's personal decision. This was hotly debated in the run up to this event.

Some thought the president should make the case that he was not going to take the vaccine as a sign to the general public that he did not think it necessary.

You heard the president say the recommendation of the government is that everyday Americans, ordinary Americans, not get vaccinated. They thought if the president said that he was not getting vaccinated, it would send that signal.

We are told the president decided that if he is going to order 500,000 people in the U.S. military to take the vaccine, that he believed, as commander in chief, it was his obligation, his responsibility, because of the risks, to take it with them. So the president essentially splitting the difference, saying as commander in chief, he felt an obligation to be vaccinated, but also making clear that the first lady, his daughters, members of his family, members of his staff at the White House here would not be taking the vaccine because he does not believe that is necessary.

So the president, if you will, showing his loyalty with the troops. About 500,000 of them will get orders to take this vaccine, along with some people posted at U.S. embassies, other overseas posts in areas that are considered dangerous. So, the president saying he's going to take one for the team, if you will.

PHILLIPS: All right. Live from the White House, John King, thanks so much.


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