Faced with a small but growing rebellion against mandatory anthrax vaccination, the Pentagon has unleashed an extensive public relations campaign to convince troops the vaccine is safe and effective.
But critics say defense statements gloss over or ignore their concerns, are full of half-truths, and underestimate the number of people who are having adverse reactions to the shots.
They predict the revolt will grow as more of the 2.4 million active duty, reserve and National Guard service members are required to get the shots.
“The military is going to have some major retention problems and some major recruiting problems if they don't knock off forcing these people to get these vaccinations,” said Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the National Vaccine Information Center. The Vienna, Va. based organization studies the risks of vaccinations.
The battle hasn't hit Scott Air Force Base yet, where only a small number of airmen have begun the vaccination program.
That could change later this year. Base spokesman Lt. Col. Janet Reese said Scott expects to start vaccinating all personnel whose jobs require them to deploy overseas by the end of this year.
“We have had no anthrax refusers,” she said Friday. “We have just over 250 people who are in the vaccination program.”
Estimates of the number of refusers vary from less than 100 to more than 200.
“We haven't really come up with a number. We don't really track the numbers,” said Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner. “But we're talking about a really, really small percent.”
Informal tracking by the Army through December found about 84 troops who refused the vaccine. As of March 10, the Army had 218,965 personnel who had received at least one shot, Turner said.
The mini revolt started a year ago, when the Pentagon issued orders to begin vaccinating troops serving in the Persian Gulf. It has grown to include members of all four armed services, including 23 sailors on the carrier Theodore Roosevelt, who were disciplined this month for refusing the shots.
Last week, an airman at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., was discharged
for refusing the vaccine. At the same base, 11 of 40 reserve pilots in
a refueling wing have refused, while a quarter of the pilots in a
Connecticut Air National Guard unit quit rather than take the shot.
The Pentagon considers anthrax, a livestock disease still common in many parts of the world, to be the biggest biological weapon threat. People who contract the disease on their skin can usually be treated with antibiotics.
But used as a biological weapon, anthrax would be released as a cloud of spores and inhaled by unsuspecting troops. Unless treatment begins before symptoms show within a few days — and detecting anthrax weapons is exceedingly difficult — the inhalation form of the disease is virtually 100 percent fatal.
Iraq is known to have produced anthrax weapons.
The only human vaccine licensed in the United States is made at a plant in Michigan that until last year was owned by the state. The plant was frequently cited by the Food and Drug Administration for quality control problems, and according to FDA documents, likely would have been shut down last year. But the Army beat the FDA to it, shutting down the plant to fix the problems and increase its production capacity. It is scheduled to reopen later this year.
Critics complain that troops are getting vaccine made prior to the plant's closing — vaccines they believe are not safe.
Just this year, the Pentagon has released 10 news articles and briefings on its Defenselink Internet site, describing the threat and claiming the vaccine is safe and effective. It also has a Web page dedicated to the vaccination program, as do each of the services.
But critics say the sites are misleading at best, starting with the repeated claim the vaccine was independently tested before it was released for use.
“It was never independently tested,” said Mark Zaid, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who has defended some refusers. “There were no long-term studies that were ever done.”
Last year, the Pentagon announced a defense contractor, Mitretek, would conduct supplemental testing on the Michigan vaccine before it would be released to the troops.
But a careful reading of Pentagon documents shows that Mitretek only observed the testing — it was actually done by the manufacturer.
The Pentagon's Turner said that meets the requirements.
“It was independently tested by us. The independent contractor monitored those tests,” he said. “Nothing was used that did not pass the tests.”
The Reserve Officers Association of the United States held its midwinter conference in January, and Pentagon leaders took the opportunity to have top uniformed and civilian reserve leaders vaccinated in a public forum.
But when the conference ended, the association had adopted a resolution calling for the vaccination program to continue only with newly manufactured vaccine, not the stockpile from Michigan.
In recent weeks, Pentagon leaders have repeatedly accused critics of, as Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Charles Krulak said, having “their own reasons for trying to undo this critical force protection program.”
That irritates people like Capt. Thomas Rempfer, one of the Connecticut Air Guard refusers.
“If service members are speaking out against this policy, it's because they have deep convictions it's wrong,” he said. “We're talking about people who have built their careers on following orders and showing good order and discipline.
“We're talking about pilots being willing to give up their planes and soldiers giving up their careers over an order they find objectionable. Perhaps a review of this policy is in order before the battle damage gets any worse.”
Originally Published, March 15, 1999, Belleville News Democrat, Belleville,
(c) 1999, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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