The effort to build a defensive line against a terrorist smallpox attack is off to a slow start. Under the plan outlined last December by President George W. Bush, nearly half a million doctors, nurses and epidemiologists were supposed to be vaccinated against smallpox in a voluntary 30-day program beginning in late January. If terrorists were to bring smallpox to the U.S.--possibly by spraying the virus in airports or sending infected "smallpox martyrs" into crowded areas--the vaccinated health care workers would be responsible for treating the exposed individuals, tracking down anyone who may have come into contact with them, and running the emergency clinics for vaccinating the general public.
By mid-March, however, local health departments across the U.S. had vaccinated only 21,698 people. Some states responded promptly: for example, Florida (which inoculated 2,649 people in less than six weeks), Tennessee (2,373 people) and Nebraska (1,388). But health departments in America's largest cities, which are surely among the most likely targets of a bioterror attack, were lagging. By March 14 the New York City Department of Health had vaccinated only 51 people--50 members of its staff, plus Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. The department planned to inoculate between 5,000 and 10,000 people to form smallpox response teams at 68 hospitals, but vaccinations at the first eight hospitals did not begin until March 17.
This article was originally published with the title Spotty Defense.