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Last Updated

26 Oct 2002

Source:  Portsmouth Herald (New Hampshire), October 26, 2002.

Vaccine controversy skips Pease

By Michelle Firmbach

PORTSMOUTH - The commander of the 157th Air Refueling Wing said Thursday he will be the first in line to receive the anthrax vaccine if the immunization program is launched here.

"I believe the threat is real," Col. Richard Martell said. "I think we saw that again with the incident that occurred after 9/11.

"Itís incumbent upon us as the military," he said. "If we are going to defend the nation, we have to be protected so we can do our job."

Martell spoke in favor of a vaccination program this week, following the release of a report by congressional investigators stating highly trained and experienced pilots and crews in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve are leaving or have left military service in part because of the Pentagonís anthrax vaccine.

Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by spore-forming bacteria. Five people were killed in last yearís anthrax attacks by mail. It is considered to be a possible biological weapon that could be used against U.S. troops.

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops have received vaccines to protect them against anthrax, particularly during the Persian Gulf War. After a long pause in the inoculation program, the pace of vaccinations was accelerated last month, officials said. Some veterans and researchers believe the vaccine is partly responsible for illnesses reported by Gulf War veterans.

"Itís going to be interesting to see what 9/11 has done to change peopleís perspectives of the program," Martell said.

Randomly selected Guard and Reserve troops surveyed in 2000 by the General Accounting Office also reported adverse reactions to the vaccine at double the rate claimed by the manufacturer, BioPort Corp.

New Hampshire was on par with the challenges back when it was an issue two or three years ago. People were concerned about taking a vaccine that was still a question mark.

Martell said he is unaware of anyone leaving the military in New Hampshire citing a problem with the immunization, but some did decide not to re-enlist.

"That may have been one of the factors that affected their decision about continuing service, but it was not highlighted as the reason they were getting out," Martell said.

Martell said the vaccination was never dispensed in New Hampshire.

"We never got to the point where we started vaccinating our folks for the anthrax," Martell said. "We were heading toward at some point looking at inoculating our troops, but we never got to that point."

Active-duty personnel, however, were administered the shot.

"The Department of Defense has done a lot of work to try to make sure the health and safety of our troops is our number-one concern," Martell said. "It is incumbent upon us to make sure people understand we have looked at it the best we can, and it is a good safe program."

Master Sgt. Mike Daigle said that despite the Guardís attempts to educate the troops by providing Web links exploring both sides of the argument, some people just did not want to take it the shot.

"They were concerned with its effects," Daigle said.

Military members who have left represent some of the most experienced and highly trained individuals in the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve "and are people not easily replaced," the General Accounting Office said.

"While many factors can and do influence an individualís decision to participate in the military, a significant number of pilot and air crew members cited the required mandatory anthrax immunization as a key reason for reducing their participation or leaving the military altogether in 2000," the GAO said.

The GAO recommended that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld require a surveillance program to monitor problems with the vaccine. The program should ensure complete and appropriate treatment and follow-up for those who experience problems or who may have them in the future, the auditors said.

In a response included with the report, the Defense Department disagreed with the GAOís recommendation and some of its findings. Reginald J. Brown, assistant secretary of the Army, cited a National Academy of Sciences report which concluded that no data pointed to the need for a monitoring program. Brown also said the GAOís findings on rates of separation by pilots were not supported by data from the Defense Manpower Data Center and the GAO did not consider normal turnover rates.

The GAO mailed 1,253 surveys in May 2000 and received 843 responses, with 833 providing useful information. The surveys were developed with the help of pilots and other air crew members of the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve.

The survey was conducted at the request of Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.

"Anthrax is a serious threat that our soldiers might face on the battlefield. At the same time, this vaccine has been controversial, and it has caused serious reactions in some individuals," Burton said.

According to the GAO survey, between September 1998 and September 2000, about 16 percent of Guard and Reserve pilots and air crew had moved to inactive status, left the military or transferred to another unit - mostly nonflying positions to avoid or delay receiving anthrax shots.

About 18 percent of those in or assigned to a unit indicated they planed to leave in the near future. The GAO said both groups ranked the anthrax vaccine as a key factor in their decision.

About 45 percent said they would consider returning if the anthrax immunization were voluntary.

The GAO estimated that about 37 percent of the service members surveyed had received one or more anthrax shots as of September 2000. Of those, 85 percent reported experiencing some sort of reaction, far higher than the 30 percent claimed by the vaccine manufacturer.

Each shot generated an average of four or more reported reactions, some that could have negative effects on the service memberís job, the GAO said.

The GAO said it found two DOD studies of the vaccine, one in Korea and one in Hawaii, that reported similar reaction rates.

Material from the Associated Press is contained in this report.