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Last Updated

19 Oct 2002

Source:  San Diego Union-Tribune, October 19, 2002.

Anthrax vaccinations resumed by Marines

Shots given to gulf-bound troops

By Jeanette Steele and James W. Crawley, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITERS

Marines bound for the Persian Gulf are getting anthrax vaccinations as the military resumes widespread use of the vaccine for the first time since mid-2001.

Among them are several hundred Marines from a command unit at Camp Pendleton that will be leaving soon for Kuwait, said Capt. Alison Salerno, a base spokeswoman.

Others who will be vaccinated include the 2,200 Marines of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit from Pendleton and the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station. They're scheduled for Persian Gulf deployment this year or in early 2003.

Officials won't say how many of the 172,500 Marines throughout the Corps will receive the shots.

It's part of a Pentagon decision to resume anthrax vaccinations for selected military members from all four services who are being sent into high-threat areas.

Marine Corps headquarters issued an order Sept. 20 to resume immunizations for those Marines bound for the Middle East and Southwest Asia. The Corps cited "current intelligence assessments (that) indicate the anthrax threat remains real."

The Marines started getting the shots late last month.

A spokesman at San Diego Naval Medical Center at Balboa Park referred all questions to the Pentagon, which declined to provide information about the Navy's policy.

Salerno said the Marines are deciding whether to expand the program.

A shortage of the anthrax vaccine caused mass immunizations to be suspended in mid-2001, but supply is not a problem now, she said.

BioPort, a Michigan firm and the nation's sole manufacturer of the anthrax vaccine, received approval to restart production in January after previously falling out of compliance with government quality standards.

The Pentagon, through its Web sites, says Marines deploying to the Persian Gulf will get the shots, but most Navy personnel aboard ships there will not be vaccinated. Nor will personnel flying over the region, unless they are based in certain countries.

Shots apparently are planned for troops assigned to ground units or bases in the gulf region. Personnel aboard ships and aircraft are less likely to be affected by anthrax.

Several years ago, at least 37 members of the military were court-martialed for refusing to take the shot.

No one at Pendleton or Miramar has declined to be vaccinated since the program resumed, Marine officials said.

The Marines cite a climate of acceptance after anthrax-tainted letters killed five Americans late last year and after a study by the National Academy of Sciences pronounced the vaccine to be safe.

"We're finding great tolerance from Marines," Salerno said. "Not only has the threat become more credible in the area they are going to, but also the Defense Department has made a real effort to show this is a safe and effective vaccine."

However, a Washington, D.C., attorney who defended several San Diego-area Marines who refused the shots in the past said he has received calls from service members, though none from area Marines or sailors.

Because the anthrax threat "is a little bit closer to home, some of the people who were on the fence may lean more toward taking (the shot)," said the lawyer, Mark Zaid.

But, he added, "it's no safer than it was before."

The Pentagon embarked on a program in 1998 to inoculate all 2.4 million service members against anthrax, a biological weapon thought to be held by Iraq.

The campaign faltered because of supply problems and because it came under fire from Congress. Additionally, hundreds of service members left the military because they feared the vaccine posed a health risk.

Six shots, given over 18 months, and annual boosters are required for full immunity. People who already have received some shots will continue the series where they left off, officials said.

The punishment facing Marines who might refuse the vaccine officially called disobeying a lawful order is still court-martial, Salerno said.