ACLU Applauds Voluntary Smallpox Vaccine Plan ; Says President Needs to Protect Those Who Refuse from Retaliation At Work

December 13, 2002 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – Saying that making smallpox vaccine available on a meaningfully voluntary basis is the best practice for both national safety and civil liberties, the American Civil Liberties Union today applauded the White House’s inoculation plan and called on the President to prevent retaliation against those who refuse the vaccine.

“”Smallpox vaccine has risks and getting vaccinated is not a choice to be made lightly — but in America, it should certainly be a choice,”” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “”Inoculation is chancy – a significant percentage of those vaccinated against smallpox will become ill and some will even die. By making the plan voluntary, the President has done the right thing for both individual liberty and public health.””

The ACLU had been concerned over the past several weeks that the White House would implement a plan of forced smallpox vaccinations of so-called “”first responders,”” those emergency personnel who would be on the frontlines of any outbreak in the United States. Fortunately, the ACLU said, the President’s smallpox vaccine plan, unveiled today, is in-line with the public safety and civil liberties arguments in support of voluntary inoculation.

The primary argument in favor of voluntariness, the ACLU said, is the significant health risk associated with vaccination. It is estimated that almost 50 million Americans have pre-existing medical conditions that make them vulnerable to the most dangerous side effects of the vaccine. Such conditions include lupus, HIV/AIDS, lupus and even the childhood skin condition eczema.

The one pitfall that still remains in the President’s plan, the ACLU said, is the potential for first responders – such as police, firefighters or EMTs – who refuse to be vaccinated to be ostracized at work, discriminated against in assignments or even fired as punishment for their decision.

“”Even voluntary vaccinations carry certain manageable but clear risks,”” said Katie Corrigan, an ACLU Legislative Counsel. “”The President should take steps to ensure that any emergency workers who refuse to be inoculated not be retaliated against at work.””

The ACLU supports the President’s plan to form volunteer Smallpox Response Teams.

The ACLU said it is also concerned about the potential privacy implications of an inoculation system without proper safeguards. Common sense suggests that many emergency personnel who refuse vaccination will have some medical condition — such as HIV/AIDS infection, chemotherapy treatment or even eczema – that renders them susceptible to the worst side effects of the vaccine. Such information should be kept in the utmost confidence, the ACLU said.

“”Many first responders who refuse inoculation will have compromised immune systems from various — and highly personal — medical conditions, the details of which do not belong in the public sphere,”” Corrigan said.

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