U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf will start getting vaccinations later
this week to protect them from the thousands of gallons of anthrax weapons
Iraq is thought to have, Pentagon officials announced Tuesday
Vaccinations will include any local military from Scott Air Force Base who are currently deployed to the gulf, as well as anyone sent there, including pilots on temporary duty, according to a Pentagon briefing Tuesday.
The military also has stockpiled hundreds of thousands of antibiotic doses in the region - enough to provide 40 days of antibiotic treatment for each of the 36,000 troops in the gulf if a biological attack is launched, officials said.
"We have stockpiled enough antibiotics to take care of everybody there," said Lt. Gen. Ronald Blanck, the Army Surgeon General.
The antibiotics are necessary because the anthrax vaccine does not provide a full immunity to the disease until the series of six shots is completed in an 18 month period, Blanck said at a Pentagon news conference.
The antibiotics also would be needed if a fully immunized soldier received a massive dose of anthrax that overwhelmed his immune response or if a genetically engineered anthrax were used that the vaccine could not fight, Blanck said.
The Belleville News-Democrat reported in December that the Pentagon's plans to vaccinate everyone in uniform against anthrax also would require stockpiling millions of doses of antibiotics. The report was based on now declassified Gulf War documents and military medical studies.
At the time, unnamed Pentagon officials claimed the anthrax vaccine would provide sufficient protection. But since then, new information has been reported, including claims that the former Soviet Union had genetically engineered a new anthrax strain.
Anthrax is a livestock disease that causes painful sores on skin, but is almost 100 percent fatal when even tiny quantities are inhaled unless treatment begins before symptoms appear. Inhaled anthrax kills within a few days of exposure by causing pneumonia, making it impossible for the victim to breathe.
Anthrax is relatively easy to convert to a biological weapon, usually in the form of spores. At least 10 nations are known to have done research on anthrax, including Iraq.
Congressional investigators in 1994 showed that Iraq had obtained anthrax and other biological agents from American companies before the 1991 Gulf War. Last month, news reports claimed Russia had sold Iraq a large fermentation system suitable for growing anthrax in 1995 and that British firms had sold Iraq biological growth mediums as recently as 1996.
U.S. experts and United Nations inspectors think Iraq has at least 2,100 gallons of anthrax and possibly more than 6,000 gallons, including as many as 25 missile warheads loaded with anthrax or other biological weapons.
Iraq also may have created a "dusty" form of anthrax that can penetrate the protective suits and masks used by U.S. troops, documents show.
In December, the Pentagon announced plans to begin later this year to vaccinate all 2.5 million active duty, reserve and National Guard service members. The program is expected to cost about $130 million and take six years, not including the cost of annual booster shots for everyone in uniform.
The vaccine is a "dead" version of the disease that has been approved and used by veterinarians and others who handle livestock since 1970. It has no known severe side effects, although it will not be given to pregnant women, Blanck said.
As recently as last month, Defense Secretary William Cohen said that troops in the gulf would begin anthrax vaccinations as the same time as the rest of the military this summer.
But on Tuesday, military leaders said they had met Cohen's requirements to start the program, including an outside review and a system for accurately tracking who has received the shots.
Originally Published, March 4, 1998 , Belleville News Democrat, Belleville,
(c) 1998, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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