British military leaders are not giving biological warfare vaccinations and anti-nerve agent pills to troops heading to the Persian Gulf because of concerns they could start a second round of Gulf War illnesses, London papers reported this week.
The London Times and the London Telegraph on Tuesday each reported that senior officials in the Ministry of Defense said the decision not to issue special vaccinations was made at the "political level."
They added that British forces in the current gulf build-up were considered to be at low risk from Iraqi chemical or biological weapons because most are stationed at sea.
Pentagon officials have repeatedly denied there is any connection between the vaccines given to U.S. troops before and during the 1991 Gulf War and the illnesses some vets blame on their service in the gulf.
On Thursday, Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner said he was unfamiliar with the British reports and could not say whether troops deploying to the gulf region are receiving any special vaccinations.
Paul Sullivan, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, praised the British decision.
"If confirmed, this bolsters claims made by veterans for more than seven years that the experimental shots and pills may have serious long-term unintended side effects," Sullivan said.
"The Pentagon should take note of this development and work with our ally and review the current policy accordingly."
British veterans of the 1991 Gulf War have blamed the assortment of vaccines and other drugs - some of them experimental - given troops before and during the war for the illnesses that some of them now suffer.
Like the Pentagon, the United Kingdom's Ministry of Defense has maintained that there is no evidence that the cocktail of vaccinations and drugs caused any illnesses.
But in October, ministry officials admitted that during the build-up to the Gulf War, British servicemen were injected with vaccines that had not been officially licensed.
They also admitted that military leaders ignored warnings from the Department of Health about the possible harmful effects of using whooping cough and anthrax vaccines together.
Pentagon officials announced in December that they intend to begin vaccinating American troops against anthrax later this year. A small number of troops in specialized units have received anthrax vaccinations for years.
On Monday, Defense Secretary William Cohen said that mass vaccination program would not begin until spring despite the current preparations for possible military action against Iraq.
There is no proof any country has ever used biological weapons, but United Nations inspectors have said Iraq has an extensive biological weapons development program, including anthrax.
Anthrax, a bacterial disease that appears in livestock, is considered to be easy to turn into a biological weapon and almost 100 percent fatal to unprotected individuals.
In December, the Belleville News-Democrat reported that the Pentagon's own research indicated that even vaccinated troops would need massive doses of antibiotics to guarantee protection if exposed to anthrax weapons.
This week, the New York Times reported that a study at the Los Alamos National Laboratory also raised questions about the effectiveness of the vaccine against anthrax weapons.
Pentagon experts say the vaccine is both safe and effective.
"It's an FDA-approved vaccine and we don't believe there's any problem with it," Turner said Thursday.
Although the anthrax vaccine has been licensed in the United States since the early 1970s, other drugs given troops in the gulf had not been given final approval by the Food and Drug Administration. They were used under an interim waiver the FDA granted the Pentagon.
The FDA has since criticized the Pentagon for the way it has used the waiver, including giving an experimental vaccine to troops in Bosnia. The FDA is attempting to withdraw the waiver.
Sullivan accused the Pentagon of using troops as "unknowing subjects" to test experimental drugs.
"Not only has Congress and the White House panel investigating Gulf War illnesses found serious problems with the implementation and follow-up in the Gulf War, the Pentagon also was severely criticized for making the same mistakes in Bosnia," he said.
Originally Published, February 6, 1998, Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1998, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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