Rep. Christopher Cox

U.S. House of Representatives

Smallpox Emergency Personnel Protection Act of 2003

March 31, 2003

Mr. Speaker, we are here in extraordinary circumstances, rushing this legislation to the floor as we must, because we are facing an emergency. We have got to provide compensation to those workers who may be injured or killed by the smallpox vaccine. The Committee on Energy and Commerce, of which I am proud to be a member, has done very, very important work to bring this bill to the floor in these emergency circumstances. The Committee on Homeland Security, of which I am also the chairman, has an abiding interest in making sure that our first responders are capable of dealing with crises such as this. If smallpox is used against American citizens as a weapon, we have got to be prepared and we have to be sure that the first responders do not themselves become weapons, because even though they are not manifesting the symptoms they are spreading the disease.

   Smallpox spreads so fast that it is estimated it will kill at least 30 percent of its unvaccinated victims. Immunity is suspected to have waned among people who were vaccinated before smallpox was thought to have been eradicated in the 1970s. Like many of the Members of this Chamber, I am such a person who has had such a vaccination. Yet I am probably not protected.

   Once contracted, smallpox incubates for 10 to 12 days, causing fever and nausea. As the symptoms abate, the victim becomes infectious but does not develop the tell-tale rash for another 2 to 4 days. That is why it is so important that these first responders be protected.

   As we speak, there is no cure for smallpox. The vaccine we have works well before exposure, but evidence of post-exposure efficacy is only anecdotal. That anecdotal evidence points to the vaccine only working if the victim is inoculated within 4 days of contact with smallpox.

   Our strategy to counter a smallpox attack depends on our first responders having already been vaccinated. It is going to be hard enough for public health officials to react within the necessary window of time. Administering the vaccine after the detection of a smallpox outbreak to a mobile American public with little or no immunity will cause immense problems. Doing so when first responders are not already themselves protected against smallpox could prove impossible. So far, only 20,000 nonmilitary personnel have been vaccinated. That is not nearly enough.

   Taking the vaccine means taking a risk. Therefore, we must reassure our health care workers and our first responders that we understand this risk and we will stand by them. That is why I support the gentleman from North Carolina's vaccination compensation legislation, that is why I support putting this legislation on the floor in this emergency circumstance as we have, and that is why I support the leadership of the gentleman from Louisiana in bringing this to a quick and hopefully positive vote.

See the original in the Congressional Record on Page H2486

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