ANTHRAX VACCINE 'SAFE'
21 Mar 2003
Source: BBC News, March 20, 2003
Anthrax vaccine 'safe'
Anthrax jabs declined by thousands of British troops serving in the war on Iraq are safe and cause only mild side-effects, research has found.
By Pat Hagan
Ministry of Defence figures show that up to 12 March, almost half the servicemen and women sent to the Gulf had refused the jab amid fears of a repeat of Gulf War Syndrome.
But the latest study suggests just 11% of military personnel immunised against anthrax develop reactions and in most cases these are confined to soreness or swelling around the site of injection.
Researchers say this means the anthrax jab has a better safety profile than other routine vaccines.
The meningitis C vaccine, for example, which is offered to all infants in the UK, causes side-effects in about 17% of patients.
The findings come as British troops face the heightened threat of a chemical or biological attack in the invasion of Iraq.
The anthrax bacterium is one of the most infectious agents known to man. It invades the lungs and poisons the blood.
Yet despite the government's attempts to persuade troops the vaccine is safe, many have decided not to have it.
The latest study was set up to measure side-effects in those given the vaccine and to see if they suffered more illness in the 12 months after immunisation.
Each one involved a course of four injections over a six-month period.
Researchers from the division of public health sciences at University of Nottingham Medical School studied five RAF bases where anthrax jabs had been offered to military personnel in 1998.
They checked the medical records of 368 who agreed to have the jab and 299 who refused.
The results, published in the journal Vaccine, showed 41 of the 368 who were immunised suffered side-effects, most of them minor ailments such as tenderness, slight swelling or flu-like symptoms.
A small number also reported fever, malaise, gastro-intestinal problems or a general feeling of being unwell.
Although researchers found vaccinated personnel visited their GPs more often afterwards, the increase over visits prior to the jab was not significant.
They said variations in vaccine uptake between RAF bases appeared to depend heavily on whether senior officers had confidence in the vaccine's safety.
Lead researcher Dr Martin Wale told BBC Online: "If you've got a commanding officer who believes it's a good thing then people down the line will take that as a lead.
"Our research shows the vaccine is safe and we found no serious side-effects. But with any vaccine it's a question of weighing up the risks against the benefits and since no-one can quantify the risks, that's a very difficult decision to take."
A spokeswoman for the MoD said anthrax represented "a real threat" to British forces but insisted troops would not be forced to have the vaccine.
"There are no plans to make it mandatory. But our position has always been that we believe it offers excellent protection."
Dr Phil Luton, information officer for the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research at Porton Down in Wiltshire - which makes all the world's supply of anthrax vaccine - said the findings suggested it was not responsible for the symptoms reported by Gulf War veterans.
"It makes us think there's something else going on, something peculiar to people that were deployed to the Gulf."