WASHINGTON – Health officials are recommending that people with heart disease not get vaccinated against smallpox as authorities investigate a possible link between the vaccine and heart problems.
The vaccination has never been associated with heart problems before, but the warning and the investigation came Tuesday, after a Maryland woman died of a heart attack and six others became ill after being inoculated.
"I think we want to err on the side of safety," Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the federal Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, said Tuesday.
Gerberding emphasized that officials do not know whether there is a connection and said the national vaccination program, off to a slow start, must move forward to prepare for the possibility of a bioterror attack with smallpox.
"The potential for terrorism has probably never been higher," she said.
Three of the seven people under investigation suffered heart attacks, including the Maryland woman who died, another woman who is now on life support and a third woman who was hospitalized and released. All three were health care or public health workers in their 50s.
Two other people developed angina, or chest pain.
All five of these patients had risk factors for heart disease before the vaccination, such as diabetes, obesity, hypertension or use of tobacco, Gerberding said.
The other two patients under investigation suffered from heart inflammation.
Gerberding said she does not expect to find a link between the heart trouble and the vaccine but wants further study before ruling it out.
"It could be entirely coincidental," she said. "Coronary artery disease is a very common condition in our society."
The vaccine carries well-documented side effects, but they have never included heart problems. Still, the data were gathered during a time when most people being vaccinated were young children not likely to have heart trouble, Gerberding noted.
The CDC planned to gather cardiac experts on Wednesday to consider whether something in the vaccine might be triggering heart problems in people who already have risk factors.
Health officials also plan to compare the rate of heart problems in the pool of smallpox vaccine recipients with the rate expected in a similar population of people who have not been vaccinated.
Under the new, temporary guidelines, people who have been diagnosed with serious heart disease such as coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, previous heart attack and angina are being told not to get the vaccine.
Gerberding said she expects the new guidelines, which are being delivered to the states immediately, to eliminate fewer than 10 percent of potential vaccines.
Existing guidelines already screen out people with conditions that are known to increase the chances of side effects, including people with HIV, pregnant women, organ transplant recipients and people with a history of skin disorders.
The woman who died, a hospital worker in Salisbury, Md., was vaccinated a week ago. She died five days later, on Sunday, in Arlington, Va., state officials said. An autopsy was performed Tuesday.
Her death is the first associated with either the civilian vaccination program that began two months ago or the military program launched in December.
As of March 14, states had vaccinated 21,698 civilians, mostly in public health departments and hospitals. Concerns about the vaccine's risk have helped keep the numbers well below the 450,000 initially expected.
The military program, where vaccinations are mandatory, has vaccinated "well over" 100,000 soldiers, the Pentagon said.
Based on studies in the late 1960s, experts estimate that one or two people out of every million being vaccinated for the first time will die. The death rate for those being revaccinated was lower: Two people died out of 8.5 million who were revaccinated in a 1968 study.
Additionally, 14 to 52 people out of every million being vaccinated for the first time are expected to suffer life-threatening side effects.
That's because the smallpox vaccine is made with a live virus called vaccinia, a cousin to smallpox which can cause illness if it escapes the inoculation site and infects another part of the body. Vaccinia can also infect those who touch someone else's vaccination site.
The last U.S. case of smallpox was in 1949, and routine vaccinations against the disease ended here in 1972, as the disease was on the wane globally.
In December, President Bush ordered that vaccinations resume for health workers, emergency responders and the military amid fears that smallpox could be used as a bioterror weapon.