The Defense Department's effort to inoculate all members of the military against anthrax suffered a major blow Monday when the new facility designed to make the vaccine failed a safety inspection. The stockpile is not yet exhausted, and a delay of up to a year is expected before more vaccine can be produced. This may allow vaccination program opponents to halt it or make it voluntary--actions that could imperil national security.
Anthrax is one of the deadliest diseases known, the "No. 1 agent we need to protect against," according to Phillip Russell, former commander of the Army's Medical Research and Development Command. The Pentagon says Iraq and at least nine other nations have anthrax weapons; a single Iraqi aircraft equipped with aerosol tanks spraying the germ near the border could imperil all of Kuwait and much of northern Saudi Arabia within a few hours.
But across the nation, soldiers, reservists and National Guardsmen are refusing to take the mandatory series of six shots. In a single day last January, nine A-10 "Warthog" pilots with the Connecticut Air National Guard resigned rather than take the vaccine. While the military claims refusals are rare--perhaps 300 so far--it has no way to count them. According to an article in the Baltimore Sun, Defense Department documents indicate that half the pilots in some Air Guard squadrons are resigning or seeking nonflying jobs to avoid the vaccine.
Opposition to the vaccine centers on its purportedly horrific side effects. A powerful weapon in the antivaccine arsenal is the Internet, where statements of ersatz experts spread at the speed of light. Thus one web site provides "shocking information of health for those at Dover Air Force Base." These 50 people supposedly have an almost endless symptom list: ringing ears, photosensitivity, joint pains, seizures, vertigo, miscarriage, insomnia, migraines, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, swollen testicles, cramps, memory loss, burning (no mention of where), blurry vision, coughing, wheezing, heart disease, stroke, "pressure in right ear," cold sweats, weight loss, vomiting, pain in toe of left foot, and bleeding gums. The stranger symptoms include "lesions that turned into moles all over the body," "dry ear canals," "grayouts," "tightness in hands and wrists" and "pain in both toes." Both?
It's true that more than 25 symptoms were recorded, says Tom Luna, who supervises the Dover vaccination program. But the airmen--who had already heard horror stories--were instructed to report anything they felt might be related to the vaccine. And the only common symptom, Dr. Luna says, was "local reactions such as sore arm, redness, swelling at injection site." As with Gulf War syndrome, to which more than 120 different symptoms have been ascribed, it is the lack of commonality that points to mass hysteria rather than organic illness.
The FDA approved the anthrax vaccine in 1970, and as of October some 352,000 people had been vaccinated. Since late 1990 a government-sponsored panel has tracked adverse reactions to all U.S.-licensed vaccines, encouraging "all reporting of any clinically significant adverse event occurring after the administration of any vaccine" [emphasis in original]. Despite such a wide definition of adverse event, only 362 were reported, and most came after the negative publicity began. Of those, 17 people were hospitalized, and only five cases were attributed to the vaccine--all of which were allergic reactions. "We are confident that the anthrax vaccine is safe and effective," says FDA spokesman Kathryn Zoon.
One crucial bit of misinformation was a June 1999 San Diego Union-Tribune article that was nationally syndicated. It stated: "The vaccine, according to a memo signed by [Army Secretary Louis] Caldera, 'involves unusually hazardous risks associated with the potential for adverse reactions in some recipients.' " In a CNBC interview, former CIA analyst and antivaccine activist Patrick Eddington spun Mr. Caldera's letter thus: "The secretary of the Army acknowledges in this memo that this vaccine does pose some very, very serious potential risks to anybody who's thinking about taking it."
But in fact, the memo was a letter of indemnification. The sentence in question began, "The obligation assumed by [vaccine maker] MBPI under this contract involves unusually hazardous risks . . ." The reference to risk applied not to vaccine recipients, but to the manufacturer. Pentagon spokesmen have taken great pains to point this out, yet the story lives on, in cyberspace and in print.
If the anthrax angst sounds awfully similar to that over Gulf War syndrome, it should. Certainly the cast of characters strongly overlaps. Mr. Eddington wrote a book about the alleged Gulf War syndrome coverup. Rep. Chris Shays (R., Conn.) held 14 hearings on the supposed syndrome, inviting only veterans with the wildest stories to testify. He's done likewise with five hearings on anthrax vaccinations.
Lt. Col. Raymond Handy, who resigned from the Air Force Reserve rather than take the vaccine, claims the Pentagon's vaccine policy "has a cancerous influence on morale and readiness." But in truth, it's the rumor-mongering and unsupportable accusations from the media, a few vociferous congressmen and so-called experts that are eroding morale and readiness. The government has already been far too craven in placating Gulf War syndrome activists. If it caves in to the anthrax vaccine hysteria, it could cripple America's ability to defend itself.
Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
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