Air Force begins smallpox vaccines

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Scott Elliott
  • Air Force Print News
The Air Force chief of staff has directed the immediate implementation of the smallpox vaccination program.

In a Jan. 6 policy memorandum to major command commanders, Gen. John P. Jumper outlined details of the commanders' force protection program against the deadly biological warfare agent.

The first Air Force people to be vaccinated will be medical people and designated forces that constitute specific mission-critical capabilities. The identified medics include Smallpox Epidemiological Response Team members at Brooks City-Base, Texas, those responsible for administering the vaccine to other airmen, and base-level smallpox medical team members (medics who have been selected to treat anyone who contracts the disease).

According to the Air Force smallpox vaccination implementation plan, some civilian employees and contractors will also be vaccinated.

Other U.S. forces will be vaccinated depending upon circumstances.

Although vaccinations will begin immediately, the program's director said airmen would be vaccinated in stages.

"It is expected that up to 30 percent of the people receiving the vaccine will have minor reactions that result in the loss of one or more duty days," said Brig. Gen. Robert L. Smolen, director of nuclear and counterproliferation.

According to medical officials, the smallpox vaccine is a "live virus" vaccine that uses vaccinia virus. People cannot contract smallpox from the vaccine.

"Smallpox vaccine has some well-recognized side effects," said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Kelly Woodward, chief of preventive medicine at the Air Force Medical Operations Agency. "Many people can expect to have minor side effects, such as feeling achy, low-grade fever, headache and itching at the injection site.

"Those are minor reactions and resolve on their own."

In rare cases, Woodward said, the virus may erupt widely over the body instead of remaining confined to the vaccination site.

Public education is one of the plan's major components. Recipients must be informed about the vaccine and its contraindications before inoculation.

People getting the vaccine will receive a briefing on expected reactions, adverse events, and how to access health care for medical concerns.

"Education of commanders, individuals and families is imperative to ensure the success of this program," Jumper wrote in the memo.

As a minimum, people will receive a copy of the smallpox vaccine trifold (available under the "Educational Products" icon at the Department of Defense smallpox Web site, ). People may get information at mass briefings or commanders' calls. Local health care professionals can also provide smallpox information.

According to the plan, recipients will be screened before inoculation. The screening form is available under the "Forms" icon at the DOD smallpox Web site. Anyone who answers "yes" or "unsure" to a question on the form will not receive the vaccine until they have received further medical evaluation.

The Air Force is taking the extra screening precautions because the smallpox vaccine has unique contraindications, or reasons to avoid it, Woodward said.

"Contraindications in either the individual receiving the vaccine or the person's household contacts will preclude a non-emergency vaccination," he said. "It's important that people receiving the vaccine take the time to consider the medical condition of others in their household as they go through the screening process."

Certain dermatological conditions, such as eczema and atopic dermatitis, increase the risk of complications from the smallpox vaccine. Those with a history of dermatological conditions should make sure to point them out during the screening process, Woodward said.

Other medical criteria that preclude vaccination include pregnancy, nursing mothers and HIV infection.

While the plan calls for people to be vaccinated before deploying to high-threat areas, non-vaccination does not necessarily preclude mobilization, Smolen said, since the vaccine may be successfully administered up to four days after exposure.

Smallpox vaccinations are given in a single dose, usually in the nondominant deltoid muscle (left upper arm for right-handed people, and vice versa). Revaccination is recommended every 10 years.