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Subject: Native American Nurse Vaccinated for Smallpox Hoped to Save Others From Fate of Her People

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Date Posted: April 03, 2003 4:28:09 EDT

Andrea Deerheart Cornitcher hoped to save others from the fate her American Indian ancestors endured when she agreed to be vaccinated for smallpox.

Before she got the shot, her husband recalled, she mentioned the deliberate spread of smallpox through germ-laden blankets given to American Indians in colonial times.

"She went ahead and did it anyhow. She was just a very caring person," said Cornitcher's husband, Standing Bear Mayo.

Five days after she got the shot, Cornitcher died just before her 56th birthday. She was the first of three people to die of a heart attack after getting the smallpox vaccine through the government's voluntary program of vaccinating health care and emergency workers who would respond to a bioterrorism attack.

Some historians have written that the British carried out an early day act of bioterrorism when they infected Indians with smallpox in 1763. The British were occupying Fort Pitt in what is now Pittsburgh when they gave the Indians blankets from a hospital filled with smallpox patients.

"Smallpox wiped out a large population of Indians," Mayo said. He said his wife thought it ironic that she was preparing to help people who might get smallpox in a bioterrorist attack.

A registered nurse at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury, Md., Cornitcher was vaccinated by the Wicomico County Health Department on March 18. She died at a friend's home in Arlington, Va., on March 23.

"She was having vomiting and diarrhea that evening," Mayo said, but friends said she thought was food poisoning.

An autopsy revealed she died of a heart attack. No link between the vaccine and her death has been proven, but investigators are studying the matter.

Health officials say two other people who were vaccinated also died of heart attacks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now advises against vaccinating anyone at serious risk for heart disease.

Cornitcher, who was hypoglycemic, "had no idea she had a heart problem," Mayo said. "If the screening would have been better ... they probably wouldn't have taken the vaccine," he said.

Because of her death, Mayo is urging other health care workers to avoid the vaccine, "until they can prove it's not killing people." More than 25,000 people have been vaccinated.

But Maryland officials said the state is continuing the vaccinations, citing the nation's increased terror alert.

"We're continuing ... because of the national threat level and the risk that smallpox could be used as a bioweapon," said John Healy, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Cornitcher, an Assateague Indian who grew up in Philadelphia, was hoping to move with Mayo to a Navajo reservation in New Mexico where she could incorporate American Indian healing traditions with modern medicine.

"She really wanted to help people," Mayo said. "She wanted to help the Native American community."

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