Saturday, June 18, 2005

More than 1,200 who had anthrax vaccine now sick

More than 1,200 who had anthrax vaccine now sick
By Jeff Donaldson

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 Air Force.

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 D.C.

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 Sept. 11.

"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 vaccine.

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 Asia.

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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