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Health Highlights: Dec. 15, 2002

Smallpox Plan Not for Kids, But the Shot Will Be Free Another 200 Sickened on Cruise World Trade Center Rescuers Still Have Health Problems D.C. Anthrax Fumigation Begins, at Last

Here are some of the latest health and medical news developments, compiled by editors of The HealthDay Service:

Smallpox Plan Not for Kids, But the Shot Will Be Free

As the questions continue over President Bush's announced smallpox inoculation plan, a few things are becoming clearer:

The vaccinations won't be given to kids; they will be free but not available at your doctor's office; if you get the virus from someone who's been inoculated, don't look for compensation. And, oh, yes, the nation's top health official will pass on getting the shot.

Children, who have traditionally received the vast majority of smallpox inoculations, won't quality for the new vaccination program absent a bioterror attack, federal officials say.

Ethical and safety concerns bar kids from clinical trials now being conducted, which means the vaccine cannot be licensed for them, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, who oversees vaccine development and bioterrorism programs at the National Institutes of Health.

"If Mom comes up to one of the local and state health officials and says, 'I want vaccine for my 5-year-old,' currently there doesn't appear to be a mechanism for them to get it," Fauci said yesterday, according to the Associated Press.

On the other hand, even though Bush has urged the general public not to get vaccinated, the shot will be free if you want it, The New York Times reports. But you won't be able to get it at your doctor's office.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson said over the weekend that the new vaccine will be provided free to Americans who want it if the vaccine, now being manufactured, passes licensing tests as expected in 2004.

But Thompson refuted other federal officials at the same conference who initially said the vaccine would be available at doctors' offices. Individual doctors would not be permitted to keep the vaccine in their offices, Thompson said, according to the Times.

"We will not give it up out of our custody. It will not be willy-nilly handed out to doctors across America. We will retain custody of the vaccine," he added.

Thompson added today in an interview with CNN that he personally does not plan to be inoculated and recommends that other Cabinet members not request the inoculation either.

"I do not believe it is necessary or should be taking place,'' he said.

Bush, in his announcement Friday, had said he would get the vaccine along with 500,000 members of the U.S. military and others stationed in high-risk locations. But he also said that he was not recommending the risky inoculation for most Americans, that it would be purely voluntary, and that his family would not get it.

And then comes this:

Health officials said yesterday some who may be injured by the smallpox vaccine will not qualify for compensation under current law.

Thompson said that he was open to discussing a compensation fund like the one that aids people hurt by other vaccines, but that there is no legislation drafted and none is imminent, according to the AP.

A provision in the Homeland Security Act bars most lawsuits related to smallpox vaccinations. People who are injured may sue in federal court, but they would have to prove negligence.

Those who get the shot through their jobs could make claims through workers' compensation and get reimbursed for health expenses and time lost from work, officials said. But those who get sick by coming into contact with someone who was inoculated have no real option, they added.

The vaccine is made of a live virus that can cause infections until the injection site scabs over. A vaccinated person can spread the virus by touching the injection site, then touching someone else. That person would not qualify for workers' compensation, the AP reports.

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Another 200 Take Ill on Cruise

More than 200 guests on the cruise ship Carnival Conquest reported symptoms of a gastrointestinal illness on a voyage that ended today, according to Carnival Cruise Lines.

The company said it was treating the illness as a Norwalk-like virus, the same type of illness that has sickened hundreds of passengers on other cruise ships in recent months, the Associated Press reports.

Carnival said it was working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to determine the cause.

The Conquest left New Orleans with 3,160 passengers on Dec. 8. Its next seven-day cruise, to the western Caribbean, was expected to depart tonight, but company officials said they had informed passengers of the outbreak and were offering refunds to those who did not want to sail.

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World Trade Center Rescuers Still Have Health Problems

The sickening legacy of the World Trade Center terrorist attacks continues.

More than half of the 2,500 rescue workers and volunteers screened to date have persistent upper respiratory inflammation, and at least one in four has abnormal breathing consistent with lower respiratory disease, the New York Daily News reports.

The findings, by doctors at Mount Sinai Medical Center who are running a federally funded study, are more than triple the rates found in the general population.

The hospital also found that, 15 months after the attacks, 20 percent of the workers have gastrointestinal acid reflux -- or heartburn -- most likely from swallowing large amounts of concrete dust, and more than 50 percent suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.

"These rates of abnormality are striking a year and three months after the event," Mount Sinai study leader and occupational health specialist Dr. Stephen Levin told the newspaper. "People are coming to us with shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, asthma. This is an urgent public health matter."

The medical center's $12 million study is only enough to screen 9,000 of the 35,000 workers and volunteers who were present at Ground Zero. The money runs out in July, the News reports.

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D.C. Anthrax Fumigation Begins, at Last

More than a year after anthrax killed two workers in the main mail-handling center of the nation's capital, crews finally began fumigating the building yesterday with a toxic gas.

The 17.5 million-cubic-foot Brentwood facility has been closed since October 2001, after anthrax-laced letters to two senators were determined to have been processed there and the two postal workers died, according to the Associated Press.

The U.S. Postal Service began pumping chlorine dioxide gas into the building late yesterday afternoon, and the gas was to be pumped into the building until today, then out through a scrubber system tomorrow said Paul Harrington, U.S. Postal Service spokesman.

The scrubber process is expected to take about 20 hours. Another day will be required to dehumidify the building and have any remaining gas break down naturally. After several weeks of follow-up monitoring, postal workers could be back in the facility by late April, postal officials said.

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