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2003 Press Releases

MMC to Take Part in Smallpox Vaccination Plan

Volunteers will be vaccinated for first-response team

Maine Medical Center has stepped up to answer the smallpox challenge issued by the Centers for Disease Control and the Maine Bureau of Health. The national plan is to vaccinate teams of frontline healthcare workers to prepare for an initial response to a bioterror attack with smallpox. In Maine, the state is leading the creation of response teams as part of an overall strategy to detect, treat, and prevent the spread of the disease.

The current strategy calls for vaccinating healthcare response teams so that there will be protected professionals to investigate suspected cases and treat affected individuals. This is a "pre-exposure" strategy. A post-exposure strategy is being developed for implementation after an attack.

"We recognize that Maine Medical Center, given its role in the state and the expertise that is concentrated here, should take a leadership role in answering the smallpox threat by being prepared to handle a case of smallpox," says Chief Medical Officer Stan Russin, M.D. "We've developed a program to seek 120 volunteer professionals from our staff to be vaccinated."

Immunized professionals at MMC might also play a significant role in any mass public vaccination program, as only qualified vaccinated people can administer vaccinations. Mass vaccinations would likely be ordered in the event of a confirmed attack.

"This is a voluntary program," Dr. Russin says. "The healthcare professionals who volunteer are making an heroic gesture for the people they serve and for their country. Those volunteers who are employed by MMC will be supported by us in terms of benefits in the event of any adverse side effects from the vaccination. The risk is very, very small, but we have a responsibility to support the volunteers in this phase of the national response."

Volunteers will be sought from a number of departments and services at MMC, with the goal of finding 120 people with the appropriate mix of skills.

Many volunteers will have to be medically screened in order to come up with the target of 120. The medical exclusion rate is about 40-60%, and careful screening is the key to lowering side effects from the vaccination program. Exclusions include: immunocompromised status, cancer treatment, pregnancy, serious skin disorders, and allergic reactions to certain drugs. Also, having family members with any of these conditions would exclude the person from vaccination.

It is highly unlikely that there would be any risk to the public from this immunization program. Precautions that protect the vaccination site are stringent, and will be monitored at work on a daily basis. Those with at-risk family members will be excluded.

"We're fulfilling our responsibility to protect our community both by participating in the immunization program and by ensuring the safety of our patients and the general public while it is underway," Dr. Russin says. "No one wants to contemplate the horror of a smallpox outbreak, but we have to be prepared if it should happen."

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