Military Again Mandates Anthrax Vaccines
The Defense Department said Monday it would resume mandatory anthrax immunizations for military personnel serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and South Korea, reviving a controversial program that had been challenged in lawsuits and halted by a federal court.
Critics have charged that anthrax vaccinations can cause infertility and auto-immune disorders, such as multiple sclerosis and lupus. Some service members have died after being vaccinated, but the Pentagon has said the deaths were not conclusively linked to the vaccine.
The Pentagon anticipates resuming the mandatory shots in the next 30 to 60 days for the approximately 140,000 troops in Iraq, 20,000 in Afghanistan and 30,000 on the Korean peninsula, plus defense contractors serving in the those areas.
William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs, said the vaccine was “safe and effective.”
“The vaccine has been thoroughly reviewed by several independent outside groups” and the Food and Drug Administration, he said.
Winkenwerder said the adverse reactions to the shots are limited to swelling, pain, redness, and malaise or flu-like symptoms. “In all the studies we have performed, looking very, very thoroughly at the vaccine, there is no increase in mortality, there is no increase in morbidity, there is no increase in hospitalizations,” Winkenwerder said.
But Mark Zaid, a lawyer who has helped lead the legal challenge to the vaccination program, said he would file a new suit to stop the program. Zaid said the potential health problems caused by a vaccine were not worth the risks.
“There is no scientific proof the vaccine is effective in human beings,” Zaid said.
Anthrax is a type of bacteria that causes treatable infections when it enters through the skin. But when inhaled, it’s usually fatal. Military experts say the germ can be used as a bio-weapon. A month after the Sept. 11 attacks, letters tainted with anthrax killed five people and sickened 17 more.
The mandatory anthrax vaccination program began in 1998. The last mandatory vaccinations occurred in December 2004, when a U.S. district judge suspended the program.
Since an April 2005 ruling, the military had been giving voluntary anthrax vaccinations, but Winkenwerder said that only about 50% of service members deploying to the Middle East, Afghanistan or South Korea had asked to get the shots.
“It is clear nobody likes getting shots if they don’t have to,” Winkenwerder said. By making it voluntary, he said, “we have been sending a signal that it is not as important as we believe it is.”
In December 2005, the FDA gave final approval to the vaccine, clearing the way for the military to resume a mandatory program.
Citing the unsolved anthrax attacks in the United States in 2001, Winkenwerder said the possibility of a biological terror attack against troops remains real, although he noted that the change in policy was not promoted by a rise in the threat level.
“There have been very public, very direct comments made by terrorists about the religious duty to obtain chemical, biological and radio-nuclear capabilities,” he said.