The Pentagon's plan to give everyone in the military an ounce of prevention against anthrax will not eliminate the need to have pounds of cure on hand if an enemy unleashes the deadly disease as a biological weapon.
This month, Pentagon officials announced that next year they will begin vaccinating every active-duty, reserve and National Guard member of the military - about 2.5 million soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines - against anthrax.
The program is estimated to cost $130 million and take about six years, not including the cost of annual booster shots for everyone in uniform.
Anthrax is a bacterial disease that appears in goats, sheep, cattle and horses and can be picked up by people who come in contact with infected animals.
Contact with the bacterial spores causes swelling and boils on the skin and is easily treated with antibiotics.
But people who inhale even a small amount of the spores almost always die, suffering within days a sudden collapse of their respiratory system and hemorrhaging of internal organs.
Animal vaccinations have made the disease rare and, since the early 1970s, a vaccine has been available to veterinarians and other people who are at risk.
But because anthrax is one of the easiest diseases to turn into a biological weapon, the Pentagon is proposing to give the vaccine to everyone in uniform.
Yet medical literature and declassified documents from the Persian Gulf War indicate the vaccinations by themselves will not be enough - not everyone develops a strong immune response, and even those who do could find their immune systems overwhelmed by the massive doses of anthrax spores that could be released in a biological attack.
Troops exposed to an anthrax attack would require massive doses of antibiotics for weeks or even months - or risk a rapid, horrible death, according to the studies.
"If you have the vaccine in your system and you're current on your boosters, you still must take antibiotics prior to the onset of the symptoms. The vaccine itself will not protect you," said Jim Brown, director of GulfWatch, a veterans advocacy group based in Hannibal, Mo.
Pentagon officials discussed the vaccination plans in a Dec. 15 background briefing to the media. The rules of such briefings require that the people giving the briefings remain anonymous.
According to a transcript of the briefing, posted on the Pentagon's Internet Web site, one briefer said that troops could "be hit with a dose (of anthrax) that overwhelms their immune system, even with the vaccine" and estimated casualties at 5 percent.
A Pentagon spokesman said last week that he could not get anyone to comment on the issue because of the Christmas holiday.
Brown said: "They don't want to admit they're vulnerable. But they issued millions of doses of Cipro during the (Persian Gulf) war, and at least some units were ordered to take them."
Cipro is the brand name for ciprofloxin, a potent antibiotic that tests showed prevented symptoms from appearing in monkeys exposed to airborne anthrax spores.
Declassified documents posted on GulfLink, the pentagon's Internet site for Gulf War illnesses, show the monkey study raised serious concerns among military planners who were preparing for war in the Persian Gulf against Iraq.
Iraq was known to be experimenting with chemical and biological weapons, including anthrax.
Orders were issued to buy massive quantities of anthrax vaccine and ciprofloxin. About 150,000 troops received at least one and in most cases two anthrax shots in the gulf.
Because studies had shown that antibiotics are effective only if taken before the onset of anthrax symptoms, commanders were given discretion on when to order their troops to begin taking Cipro at the rate of one 500-milligram tablet every 12 hours.
Larry Perry, a North Carolina veteran who served with the Naval Construction Battalion 24, said his unit was ordered to start taking Cipro even before members got their first anthrax shot.
"We had the shots and the (nerve agent) pills and the Cipro," he said. "Oddly enough, I had flulike symptoms right away."
Such symptoms are a common side effect of the anthrax vaccine.
Others in his unit suffered from the kinds of side effects typical of Cipro, but Perry said it was impossible to pinpoint a cause.
"We had to medevac about 15 guys from the unit," he said. "Weird stuff - one guy had heart attack symptoms, another had diarrhea so bad they had to send him to the hospital."
Today, thousands of veterans are sick with illnesses they blame on their service in the gulf.
A 1994 congressional study concluded that because the anthrax vaccine was used so rarely before the Gulf War, little was known about its long-term effects, but that it could not be ruled out as a possible cause of some illnesses.
Perry said he thinks the Pentagon might have problems persuading troops that the vaccine is safe.
"If I were made to take it again, I probably wouldn't. They'd probably have to write me up," he said. "I don't think it's worth the risk, not after everything we've seen with the veterans from the gulf."
Originally Published, December 28, 1997, Belleville News Democrat,
(c) 1997, Belleville News-Democrat, Belleville, Ill.
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