Half of U.S. Military Personnel Refuse Anthrax Shot

WASHINGTON — Half of U.S. military and civilian personnel offered anthrax vaccinations under a voluntary program that began in May have refused the inoculation, according to figures released yesterday to Global Security Newswire by a Defense Department agency (see GSN, May 6).

Since May 19, the vaccine has been offered to about 14,000 personnel, and roughly 7,000 of them have refused to take it, according to Col. John Grabenstein, director of the Military Vaccine Agency.

No explanation was given for the high number of refusals. “We can’t speculate on individual decisions,” he said.

The current pace of vaccinations is expected to increase, he said, as additional clinic workers are certified to give the vaccine and additional military units offer treatments to personnel.

The high refusal rate comes amid persisting complaints by some servicepeople and nongovernmental experts that the U.S. military has been reluctant to acknowledge a connection between the vaccine and uncommon but potentially debilitating side effects, which they say has hindered access to medical benefits and compensation (see GSN, Nov. 16, 2004).

It comes also despite a determination in December by then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, citing classified intelligence, that there is “a significant potential for a military emergency involving a heightened risk” of an anthrax attack on U.S. forces.

Wolfowitz’s finding preceded the Food and Drug Administration’s granting of an emergency legal authority in January to give the vaccine voluntarily to servicepeople. The vaccinations are focused on personnel stationed for prolonged periods in South Korea and the area of the U.S. Central Command, which includes the Middle East, along with those deployed for special biodefense-related missions.

“We are concerned that those who decline vaccination could die or be harmed if attacked with anthrax spores,” Grabenstein said.

The military has maintained that the vaccine is as safe as other commonly used vaccines, and Grabenstein said the recent treatments have produced only minor side effects.

“Adverse events are similar to previous experience, primarily temporary injection-site pain, swelling, or redness,” he said.

Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, however, said officials have been reluctant to acknowledge severe side effects that sometimes occur, making it difficult to obtain proper medical support.

The refusal rate, he said, suggests “that soldiers are not willing to take the risk if [the Defense Department] is not willing to provide medical care and compensation should they become injured.”

Approximately 1,200 military personnel were treated in 2003 and 2004 by four special clinics called Vaccine Healthcare Centers, for complex reactions to the anthrax or other military vaccines, the Army told Global Security Newswire this year (see GSN, May 6).

Mandatory Vaccinations Could ResumeThe vaccinations began May 19. Under the voluntary program, personnel cannot be punished for refusing the vaccine.

A mandatory anthrax vaccination program that began months before the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and inoculated more than 1 million personnel was halted last October. The decision came after a federal judge ruled the vaccine could not be mandatory because the Food and Drug Administration had not licensed it as effective against inhalation anthrax, the type soldiers most be most likely to face in the field. Personnel who refused then were subject to possible removal from deployment status and disciplinary action.

A licensing decision is pending from the Food and Drug Administration for using the vaccine against inhalation anthrax, which could lead to renewed mandatory vaccinations. A final period for public comment ended in March.

The refusal rate appears to resemble that experienced by the voluntary anthrax vaccination program administered by the British government prior to and during the Iraq war. Statistics made public by the British Defense Ministry in February 2003 showed that as many as 49 percent of 20,000 military personnel offered anthrax vaccinations prior to the Iraq did not accept.

“The [Defense Ministry] is clearly losing the battle to convince the armed forces that anthrax infection is a clear and present danger in the Gulf,” MP Paul Keetch, Liberal Democrat shadow defense secretary, said then. “When weighing the risks of infection with fear of health complications from the vaccine, the majority of RAF [Royal Air Force] and naval personnel are rejecting vaccination.”

A former officer from the Royal British Legion, a charity supporting British servicepeople and veterans, said in September 2004 that statistics indicated then that one-third of an estimated 45,000 British personnel involved in the invasion had refused anthrax vaccinations, according to a report by the Guardian.

A Canadian judge in May 2000 ruled Canadian military personnel could refuse the vaccinations without penalty, questioning that vaccine’s safety.

More than 40 Australian soldiers reportedly were recalled from Iraq around the time of the invasion for refusing anthrax vaccinations, though they reportedly were not disciplined.

The Bush administration justified the invasion of Iraq as necessary primarily for removing an alleged threat posed by a suspected Iraqi nuclear weapons program, and alleged chemical and biological weapons, including anthrax. A CIA-sponsored team concluded last year Iraq no longer had such weapons, having abandoned its banned programs after the 1991 Gulf War.

The terrorist network al-Qaeda is believed to have sought to use anthrax, but failed to obtain the agent or full capability for producing a weapon before it was routed from Afghanistan in late 2001. 

A Defense Department report in 2001 alleged that North Korea had pursued biological weapons capabilities since the 1960s and possessed a rudimentary technical infrastructure capable of producing anthrax and other biological warfare agents. That same report alleged Iran had an active biological warfare program.

Anthrax mailings to several U.S. Senate offices and news media organizations in fall 2001 killed five people and sickened 22. No one has been caught.

GSN staff writer David Francis contributed to this article

July 7, 2005
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WASHINGTON — Half of U.S. military and civilian personnel offered anthrax vaccinations under a voluntary program that began in May have refused the inoculation, according to figures released yesterday to Global Security Newswire by a Defense Department agency (see GSN, May 6).