Amid heightened concern over terror threats, city authorities are developing a plan for responding to a possible smallpox outbreak that would include significant participation by local volunteers.
As the first stage of smallpox inoculations continues nationwide among healthcare workers and first responders, New Haven is looking for about 2,000 volunteers who would aid vaccination efforts in the event of an attack, said William Quinn, the city’s health director. Under the current plan, three clinics would be established to vaccinate the city’s entire population within 10 days of an outbreak.
Quinn said the volunteers — who are being organized by the city’s health department — would largely be responsible for disseminating information about the inoculation and conducting pre-vaccination screenings.
“We need a lot of volunteers,” Quinn said. “It’s an ambitious effort when you try to get that many people.”
Although smallpox was eradicated in the late 1970s, the federal government initiated a vaccination program last year out of concern that terrorists might use the virus — which has a mortality rate of 30 percent if untreated — as a biological weapon. So far, the government has focused most of its efforts on creating smallpox response teams of medical professionals and first responders who could assist in a larger vaccination program in the event of an outbreak.
Yet, as city and state officials prepare plans for a possible outbreak, concerns about the vaccine’s side effects — as well as a wide range of conditions that restrict the vaccine’s use — have led to a “very cautious” response among potential volunteers, said Christopher Cannon EPH ’79, director of the Yale-New Haven Hospital System’s Office of Emergency Preparedness.
While typical side effects include mild fever and soreness, the vaccine caused potentially life-threatening reactions among 14 to 52 out of every one million patients in a study conducted in the 1960s. But Cannon said most health care workers who have received the vaccination have experienced few adverse effects.
“One of the things we’ve already found — is that because side effects to the vaccine have been fairly mild, other people have signed up,” Cannon said.
Conditions that currently prohibit vaccination include skin disorders or pregnancy, and since volunteers for the shots cannot share a household with anyone with a prohibited condition, as many as 30 to 50 million Americans are ineligible to receive the vaccine.
“I have nurses on my own staff who would volunteer for it, but their child has eczema, or they have eczema,” Quinn said. “When you start eliminating those people, the pool gets smaller.”
Quinn said the city now has about 80 volunteers to assist in a smallpox response. At Yale-New Haven Hospital, which conducted its first vaccinations in February, about 40 health care workers have signed up to receive the vaccine.
Paul Genecin, the director of Yale University Health Services, said YUHS is currently coordinating its smallpox response efforts with city and state authorities. He said he was interested in exploring whether Yale students could volunteer to help with local vaccination efforts.
“There hasn’t been immunization going on here as yet,” Genecin said. “It’s a little unclear at this point whether we’ll have a clinic.”