MCAGCC, Twentynine Palms, Calif.- -- Deploying Marines with the 7th Marine Regimental Combat Team began Smallpox immunizations Monday in accordance with the Department of Defense's Smallpox Vaccination Program.
"Smallpox is a serious infectious disease. We cannot quantify the threat of it being used as a bioweapon; we know the consequences of its use could be great," said William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
"Vaccinating service members before an attack is the best way to ensure that our troops are protected and that they can continue their missions if a smallpox outbreak occurs."
The Department of Defense conducted major vaccination programs during World Wars I and II and service members were routinely vaccinated from the 1940s until 1984, when military vaccinations were limited to recruits in basic training. This practice was discontinued in 1990, but after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2002, and the following anthrax letter attacks, the DoD reassessed the threat of a possible smallpox attack.
"Authorities are concerned that terrorists or governments hostile to the United States may have, or could obtain, some of the variola virus that causes smallpox disease," said Capt. Stewart T. Upton, Headquarters Marine Corps Smallpox Public Affairs Officer. "If so, these adversaries could use it as a biological weapon. People exposed to variola virus, or those at risk of being exposed, can be protected by the vaccinia [smallpox] vaccine."
Currently, only non-exempt, deploying Marines aboard the Combat Center, are receiving the vaccination, according to Lt. Cmdr. Craig Ross, 7th Marine Regimental surgeon. Though the Department is considering options to offer the vaccine, on a voluntary basis, to certain DoD family members and non-essential civilian personnel, the policy remains to evacuate these civilians from threat areas in crisis situations.
Marine Administrative message 008/03 states, "Smallpox is a contagious, sometimes-fatal infection prevented by vaccination with live Vaccinia virus. Historically, smallpox kills 30 percent of those infected."
Approximately five to seven days after receiving the vaccine, most people experience a blister in the punctured area, slight fever and body aches. The blister eventually forms a scab that falls off within 21 days.
"As long as the scab is there, it?s contagious and can spread to other areas of the body or to other people," said Ross. "It?s important to keep the site covered."
The vaccine is mandatory for designated service members unless they fall under certain exemption policies, said Ross.
"Previous data shows that the vaccination causes serious side effects in about 50 people per million," said Ross. "Though there is only a small risk, we have taken extra precautions to make sure we are not giving the vaccine to anyone with an increased risk of side effects or anyone who has a family member with an increased risk of side effects, such as a pregnant wife."
Ross added that those with family exemptions will receive the vaccine once deployed, and if a smallpox attack does occur, no service member will be exempt.
"At that point, the risk of developing smallpox far exceeds the risk of the vaccination," said Ross.
If a person suspects an adverse reaction from the smallpox vaccine, he should seek care from a healthcare provider or medical department representative as soon as possible, said Ross. The healthcare provider is required to file a Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System form if the patient is hospitalized, loss of duty for more than 24 hours or if a contaminated vial is suspected, although other submissions are encouraged.
"VEARS is an early detection system that helps us monitor the safety of the vaccination," said Ross. "We are minimizing risks at all times."
For more information on smallpox, the Vaccinia vaccine or the DoD?s Smallpox Vaccination Program, visit http://www.smallpox.army.mil.
"Smallpox protection helps the global war on terrorism," said Upton. "New threats require new measures of force protection."