A majority of those surveyed think that there has been a case of smallpox in the past five years and that there is an effective treatment for smallpox, when neither statement is true.
“It’s staggering,” Robert J. Blendon, who directed the survey at the Harvard School of Public Health, told the Associated Press.
The survey will be published in the Jan. 30 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, along with several other reports on smallpox. The journal posted all of the smallpox papers on its Web site late Thursday.
Blendon’s survey is based on calls to 1,006 randomly selected adults over the past two months. It carries a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Only 16 percent of those surveyed think the country has enough vaccine to give everyone in case of a smallpox attack. In fact, the government says it has enough for all. Vaccination within a few days of exposure can prevent people from contracting smallpox, but only 42 percent knew about that possible means of protection from the disease.
The likelihood of serious side effects from the vaccine were overestimated by those surveyed. Death was considered to be a “very likely” or “somewhat likely” side effect by 25 percent of respondents.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, out of 1 million people who received the vaccine when it was last widely administered, between 14 and 52 people had life-threatening reactions. Based on these past experiences, the CDC estimates that 1 or 2 people per 1 million who receive the vaccine will die as a result.
Respondents also expressed skepticism regarding the fairness and efficacy of a possible emergency vaccination effort. Only 40 percent think that it would be possible to get vaccinated quickly if there was a local outbreak. If an outbreak occurred and it was not possible to quickly inoculate everyone, 72 percent think that wealthy and influential people would be vaccinated first, 43 percent think the elderly would be discriminated against, and 22 percent think blacks would be discriminated against.
The survey found that doctors would be very influential in the event of an attack. Almost three-quarters of respondents would want to be vaccinated if their doctor and most other doctors decided to be inoculated. Additionally, a little over half of respondents would go to their own doctor if they suspected they had smallpox.
The survey’s findings point to a need for more public education about smallpox and the vaccine. The CDC has largely focused on educating doctors about smallpox, assuming they will then communicate with patients.
“If and when a licensed vaccine is made available to the general public, the plan here is to embark on a mass-media education campaign that could include posters, advertisements and public service announcements,” CDC spokesman Tom Skinner told the AP.