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Last Updated

18 Aug 2003

Source: Washington Post, June 29, 2002.

Pentagon to Resume Anthrax Vaccinations

Those in 'High-Threat' Areas Targeted

By Guy Gugliotta, Washington Post Staff Writer

The Defense Department announced yesterday it will resume vaccinating military personnel against anthrax, but will limit the vaccine's use to service members deployed to "high-threat" areas for more than 15 days.

The plan announced by William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant defense secretary for health affairs, marked a sharp departure from the controversial policy developed during the Clinton administration to vaccinate all of the nation's 2.4 million military personnel.

Winkenwerder acknowledged that "it is no longer the policy to vaccinate the entire force with this vaccine." He suggested that several factors contributed to truncating the program, including limited supplies of vaccine, the cumbersome requirement of six shots spread over 18 months, and development of a new vaccine, albeit only after several years.

"We remain very committed to the goal of protecting all forces from anthrax through a variety of approaches, including intelligence, surveillance, protective clothing, antibiotics and other countermeasures," Winkenwerder said. "We are committed long-term to the notion of a new vaccine."

Winkenwerder said "roughly half" of the vaccine produced by the Michigan-based company BioPort, the nation's only anthrax vaccine supplier, was destined for civilian use, either through the Department of Health and Human Services or the Office of Homeland Defense.

Winkenwerder said there were "agreements in place" to provide vaccine to both agencies, even though neither has publicly made known its desires. HHS officials suggested recently that the department had stockpiled the anthrax vaccine it needed. The Office of Homeland Security said that it had not yet decided whether civilian emergency personnel should be vaccinated or simply use antibiotics.

"We are not aware yet of any policy decisions that have been made regarding first responders," BioPort President Bob Kramer said in an interview. "We stand prepared today to increase our production based on policy requirements."

Announcement of a vaccine policy had been anticipated ever since the independent Institute of Medicine in March released a report endorsing the vaccine's safety, apparently answering complaints first raised when several veterans complained of illness after receiving shots during the Persian Gulf War.

Since the program's inception in 1997, several hundred servicemen and servicewomen have refused to take the shots, and about 100 others were court-martialed. Winkenwerder said that the new policy "is mandatory" for those who qualify.

Winkenwerder refused to define what the Pentagon meant by "high-threat areas," but they are known to include most, if not all, nations in the Middle East, and possibly Korea. Interest in vaccinating the entire force first arose in 1995 when secrets of Iraq's biological weapons were revealed, including the existence of huge stocks of anthrax.

Winkenwerder said that while vaccinations could begin almost immediately, individuals would not start the six-shot course of inoculations until they were 45 days from deployment.

Main force units will not immediately receive the injections, Winkenwerder said, even those Marine and airborne divisions regarded as quick reaction forces. Should such units be deployed, they would presumably continue the injections for the next 18 months, whether they were overseas or not.

The new policy will presumably directly affect reserve pilots who are regularly sent to the Middle East, and who in the past have led the protests against the vaccine.

Winkenwerder said "we do not anticipate any concerns" about the vaccine from those who will take it. But officials remained keenly interested in studies that could lead to a reduction in the number of shots required to four, or even three, and in efforts to develop a new vaccine.