- More than 1,200 military personnel who received the anthrax
vaccine before going to Iraq have developed serious illnesses, according
to an Army report released last month, though local military officials
contend the shots still are safe and necessary.
- Since 1991 and the first Gulf War, the Defense Department
has required service members to be immunized against such childhood diseases
as Typhoid and Hepatitis A as well as against biological agents such as
anthrax, when deploying to Korea or the Middle East.
- But with Army officials reporting 1,200 illnesses and
several thousand more queries about potential side effects, the Defense
Department has started allowing troops deploying overseas to opt out of
receiving the anthrax vaccine without penalty, according to the Army and
- Maj. Brian Blalock, public health flight commander at
Nellis Air Force Base, said the anthrax shot is no longer mandatory for
service members who are willing to sign a waiver releasing the military
from liability. Still, the majority of service members elect to have the
shot, he said.
- "We've really not seen a big problem with anthrax
-- nothing outside of the normal range of side effects," Blalock said.
- Roughly 30 percent of men, and 60 percent of women, who
receive the anthrax vaccine have some sort of minor reaction, such as swelling
or a small lump at the injection spot, Blalock said.
- But the illnesses reported by the Army have been more
severe. Initial symptoms of the reported cases included minor diarrhea,
cramping and fever to more intense problems like sleep and memory loss,
chronic fatigue, headaches and chest pains.
- Local numbers for service members affected are not available.
- The national cases have been handled by the Vaccine Healthcare
Centers, which are located at several U.S. military bases, but are overseen
by the vaccination program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington
- Despite the illnesses, Walter Reed officials contend
that more than 1.3 million military and civilian personnel have received
the vaccine since 1998 when the military began requiring members to receive
a series of six shots to guard them against the anthrax virus.
- The hospital contends anthrax vaccinations are safe and
more necessary than ever, especially considering the threat of anthrax
contamination that hit several post offices and office buildings following
- "We're living in a completely different era. There
are terrorists who are intent on using biological agents and there are
countries that certainly have the capability," Blalock said.
- The military shut down the anthrax vaccination program
temporarily prior to 1998 citing concerns about outdated versions of the
shot. The necessity of the shot has been a hot point of debate in Washington
and among soldiers' advocacy groups that contend illnesses from the vaccine
have put some members out of the service.
- Medical officials hope that educating service members
about the benefits of getting the shots will encourage "across the
board" compliance. They contend there is insufficient information
to quantify the seriousness of illnesses resulting from the anthrax vaccine.
- The Nevada National Guard, which routinely deploys members
to Iraq and Afghanistan to fight the global war on terror, still requires
the anthrax shot for soldiers and airmen going there or to Korea.
- Spokeswoman Lt. April Conway said there have been no
reported cases of adverse reactions to the shots among Guard members, but
there have been some members who refused to have the vaccine.
- "A couple years ago we had a few people who asked
not to do it," Conway said. "Their positions were filled by volunteers
who were willing."
- Though military budget concerns may force the closure
of the Vaccine Healthcare Centers which oversees assessment and treatment
of anthrax-based problems, Congress and the Food and Drug Administration
have approved an emergency use authorization to fund more of the anthrax
- Citing a renewed threat of anthrax poisoning to U.S.
forces overseas, the Pentagon announced last month it would resume providing
mass anthrax vaccinations for service members deploying to Korea or Southwest
- While the debate about the seriousness of anthrax-related
illnesses is likely to get bogged down in the same discussion over such
war-related illnesses as Gulf War Syndrome, Blalock is among those who
believe the benefits far outweigh the cost.
- "There are a lot of diseases out there -- very lethal,
very deadly," Blalock said. "It really comes down to people making
the best choice."
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