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Friday, January 24, 2003

This won't hurt a bit

I still have the scar from my last smallpox vaccination.

I remember getting it before I started school somewhere -- either college or law school. I'm pretty sure the school required that I get revaccinated, even though I had received the vaccine once before as a child. The second time around, our regular family doctor was out of town, and a substitute in his office did the job. For some reason he made the circle of pinholes in a larger outline than we expected, and the scar is still visible.

Today I ponder the fact that I might be getting another one sometime soon. But it won't be in the bright, hopeful spirit of a young man going off to school, that's for sure.

The news that smallpox vaccinations of civilian health care workers is about to begin in the United States saddens me deeply. In the nearly five decades I have been taking in air on this planet, vaccination against exotic diseases has always felt like protection against a careless mistake, or an act of God. Somehow in my mind's eye, the danger being avoided was the possibility that some infected person or animal might enter our country without anyone's knowledge of their health problem, and inadvertently give us the deadly illness in question.

Now the threat is qualitatively different. Suddenly we're concerned that someone might deliberately dose us with the awful disease, perhaps by lobbing it into our midst by remote control.

A year and a half ago, that threat was unthinkable. Now it seems obvious.

The decision to vaccinate civilians with a live virus has problems on a couple of different levels. Most importantly, people worry about the side effects, and wonder whether those risks outweigh the risk of bioterrorism. (If you want to see some disturbing pictures of the side effects, go here and click a few times; or just take my word for it, they're gruesome.) Thank goodness we live in a country in which folks can raise those concerns and not be persecuted, because the potential harm should be well understood before anyone consents to getting the scar.

But even those of us who won't be getting revaccinated will bear a psychic scar. The world we've made for our kids is one in which they may need to be vaccinated not only against what Mother Nature might bring, and not only against what a sick stranger might do to them accidentally, but also against what the bad guys might do to them deliberately, because the bad guys hate us enough to kill even the most innocent people among us.

I'm not proud to be here.

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