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Press Releases

New York City Seal Press Release

New York City Department of Health
and Mental Hygiene

Office of Communications
CONTACT: Sandra Mullin/Greg Butler
Business Hours (212) 788-5260
After Business Hours (212) 764-7667; (877) 640-1347
Friday, December 13, 2002


Only Health Care Workers and Public Health Response Teams Included in the First Wave
of this Voluntary Vaccination Program;
NO Current Recommendation or Plan to Vaccinate the General Public

The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) announced today that as part of its plan to prepare for the possible occurrence of smallpox disease in New York City, smallpox vaccination would be offered starting in January to a strategic reserve of health and public health workers. Because of the protection smallpox vaccination would give these individuals, they would be called upon to assist the City in its response to an outbreak if one were to occur.

Thomas R. Frieden, MD, MPH, Health Commissioner, was joined by Benjamin Chu, MD, MPH, President, New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation, and Susan Waltman, Senior Vice President and General Council Greater New York Hospital, in a press briefing at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to describe the City's plans.

New York City's Plan for Voluntary Smallpox Vaccination

It is expected that approximately 15,000 doses of vaccine will be made available to New York City on or around January 24, and that the vaccination initiative will begin soon afterwards. The vaccine will be made available to staff in each of approximately 70 acute-care hospitals in New York City and to selected staff at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. This is a voluntary vaccination program and no individual or institution will be required to participate. Those who volunteer will be expected to assist in the response effort if a smallpox outbreak were to occur in New York City. This week, DOHMH conducted two days of information and planning sessions with over 300 individuals from the City's voluntary and public hospitals.

Dr. Frieden said, "This voluntary vaccination program will strengthen the City's readiness to address a smallpox attack, if one were to occur. Although the likelihood of such an attack is not known, being ready is one of the best forms of defense. Vaccinating key personnel before a bio-terrorist attack is an important, additional step in the City's preparedness."

Smallpox is a severe viral infection that was eradicated from the world in 1977 after a successful vaccination campaign by the World Health Organization. Smallpox can be prevented with smallpox vaccination; without vaccination, one out of every three people who get smallpox will likely die. (For more information about smallpox, visit

Routine smallpox vaccinations ended in the United States in 1972. In most parts of the world, smallpox vaccinations ended by 1980. It is not known whether or to what extent people previously vaccinated years ago would be protected from infection or serious illness. Those participating in the voluntary vaccination program who were previously vaccinated will be re-vaccinated. Furthermore, since some data show that previously vaccinated people have fewer adverse effects from re-immunization, these individuals are being encouraged to participate in the voluntary program.

Smallpox Vaccination Is Not Without Risk

Dr. Frieden also explained that the vaccine is not without risk. About 1 in 1,000 people may have serious side effects including, a severe skin rash that can occur when people with eczema get the vaccine, and failure of the vaccine site to heal, leading to a spread of lesions through the body. (Those who have suppressed immune systems are more susceptible to these adverse effects). One in a million people may die as a result of the vaccine. "We will proceed with caution as we implement the vaccination plan," Dr. Frieden said. "Those with medical contraindications will not be permitted to participate in the voluntary vaccination program. People who have been vaccinated against smallpox previously will be told that their previous vaccination means they are less likely to have adverse reactions if they are re-vaccinated."

"Additionally, several safety mechanisms will be in place to monitor adverse effects of the vaccine," Dr. Frieden added.

Anyone who has any of the following health conditions, or lives with someone with any of these conditions, should not get vaccinated unless there is a smallpox outbreak:

  • Weakened immune systems (e.g., persons with HIV infection, cancers, organ transplants, people on chemotherapy or taking steroids).
  • A history of EVER having the skin diseases eczema or atopic dermatitis.
  • Any active skin diseases, such as burns, shingles, severe acne, etc. (If these skin diseases are not active and have healed, it is okay to get the vaccine).
  • Women who are pregnant or who will be trying to get pregnant in the four weeks after vaccination.

In addition to the health conditions listed above, women who are breastfeeding, anyone who is ill at the time of vaccination, and anyone with allergies to one of the ingredients in the vaccine (polymyxin B, streptomycin, chlortetracycline, neomycin and phenol) should not get the smallpox vaccine.

If a smallpox outbreak were to occur, these contraindications to vaccinations would no longer apply because they would be outweighed by the risk of serious illness from smallpox. If there were an outbreak, vaccinations would be provided as needed to prevent serious illness and to stop the spread of the disease.

For Security Reasons, Some Details of the Smallpox Vaccination Plan Are Confidential

For security reasons, DOHMH cannot release specific vaccination details, vaccine distribution plans, or information specific to individual, hospital, or agency participation.

Historical Facts About Smallpox

In one of the greatest achievements in public health history, smallpox was eradicated from the world in 1977, when the last known case occurred in Somalia. The last case in New York City was in 1947, when, in just over 3 weeks, more than 6 million people were vaccinated. The last case of smallpox in the United States was in Texas in 1949.

For More Information

For more information, the public can call the federal Centers for Disease Control Public Hotline at (888) 246-2675; (888) 246-2857 for Spanish speakers and (866) 874-2646 for TTY or can log on to The hotlines operate from 8:00 A.M. – 11:00 P.M., Monday through Friday, and 10:00 A.M. – 8:00 P.M., Saturdays and Sundays. Information about smallpox and smallpox vaccination is available on the DOHMH website at or on the CDC website at