NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Adverse Reactions to Smallpox Vaccine are Rare and Explainable

October 29, 2002

President Bush will soon decide how many Americans will be able to get smallpox vaccinations.

Smallpox vaccinations are riskier than most other common vaccinations and doctors cite a one-per-million death rate. But a close study of the numbers reveals fewer dangers than the raw numbers indicate.

William J. Bicknell, a public health professor at Boston University, recently reviewed statistics from 1968, the last time the U.S. collected data on mass smallpox vaccinations.

  • Of about 14 million people vaccinated, 5.6 million received first-time vaccinations and 8.5 million were re-vaccinated.
  • Of the 14 million, nine died, and another 572 had complications.
  • Bicknell found that seven of the nine deaths were in children under the age of 10 -- a traditionally higher-risk category.
  • As for the other two, one had chronic lymphocytic leukemia and the other had aplastic anemia -- exactly the sort of people who would be screened out in a pre-vaccination program today.

As for complications, 81 percent occurred in children under age 10.

Bicknell concludes that by excluding such higher-risk categories as children and the immuno-compromised, and by utilizing new technologies, the risks drop sharply.

Source: Editorial, "Why Not a Smallpox Choice," Wall Street Journal, October 29, 2002.

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