News

European Stars and Stripes
December 4, 1999
Pg. 2
Pentagon Works To Combat Anti-Vaccine Attitudes

By Chuck Vinch, Washington bureau

WASHINGTON—Pentagon officials have reached out to some of the more than 2,500 people, most of them servicemembers, who recently signed a petition against the military’s mandatory anthrax vaccinations to find out why.

The petition, which specifically expressed support for two bills in Congress — one to halt the program until more study can be done on the vaccine, the other to make it voluntary — was sent to President Clinton, Defense Secretary William Cohen and other military officials in September.

Recently, the Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program Agency in San Antonio, Texas, selected 25 petitioners at random and sent them e-mail messages that stated: "We are very interested in the reasons why you chose to support the petition opposing this program. We would like the opportunity to address your individual concerns. Your input and opinions are very important to us."

Critics of the immunization program said the move is the latest sign of an intensifying "public relations war" being waged by the Pentagon, which wants to immunize all 2.6 million active-duty troops and reservists by 2003.

"This is one of the most aggressive PR endeavors I’ve ever seen the Pentagon undertake," said Mark Zaid, a Washington-based attorney who has been working with servicemembers opposed to the program and organized the recent petition. "How much money is being spent on PR damage control? Because that’s what this is."

The military estimates it will spend more than $130 million to immunize all troops over the lifetime of the program. A good chunk of that money —at least at the moment — is being funneled into education and information efforts.

In the current fiscal year, for example, the total anthrax vaccine program budget is about $7.4 million, with $1.37 million — more than 18 percent — being used for educational purposes, said Virginia Stefanokis, a spokeswoman for the Army surgeon general. The Army is serving as executive agency for the military-wide program.

Most of the $1.37 million will be spent on information pamphlets and laminated shot-record cards, as well as briefings charts and materials that are being used by military officials to educate the force.

Some of the money is also being spent on promotional-type items, such as ballpoint pens with the words "Anthrax Kills" on them along with telephone contacts for the AVIP Agency. Other items with similar themes, such as coffee mugs and baseball caps, are also being distributed.

Defense Department officials readily admit they’ve been caught short by the level of opposition to the program, which began in March 1998, and have had to play catch-up. At least 200 troops are known to have refused the shots, with most being forced out of the military, but there have been anecdotal reports of larger numbers. The true total is unclear because the Pentagon stopped counting earlier this year.

About 350,000 troops have begun taking the vaccine, which involves six shots over an 18-month period, followed by annual boosters.

"We probably weren’t as diligent as we should have been with our education efforts in the beginning," Stefanokis said.

That assertion is based on the fact that the Food and Drug Administration has approved the vaccine for use in humans for almost 30 years, based on animal tests. But even Pentagon officials acknowledge that there have been no formal clinical trials in humans and that the long-term effects of the drug on humans is unknown.

"Long-term is indeed the question," Lt. Gen. Ronald Blanck, the Army surgeon general, told lawmakers in September.

Stefanokis said program officials decided to contact some of the petitioners who had listed their e-mail addresses because "we’d like to know what their objections are so we can answer their questions. If their opposition is based on misinformation or absolute myth, then we’d like to get them the correct information."

But if that was true, Zaid said, the Pentagon would make an effort to contact as many of the 2,500 petitioners as possible. While officials may give information on the anthrax vaccination program to the 25 they selected, Zaid said he thinks the move is more of a "fishing expedition" to get a fix on the latest scuttlebutt in the ranks.

"There is real grass-roots opposition to this program," Zaid said. "And that goes for some higher-ups, too. I’ve talked to colonels and lieutenant colonels on active duty who hate this program, although of course they’re never going to say so publicly."

He pointed out that no other country has a mandatory anthrax immunization program for its military forces, and neither does the U.S. State Department, which has embassies and consulates in almost all corners of the world.

"The Pentagon has clearly exaggerated this threat," he said. "But they’ve reached a point where it would be too embarrassing for them to back away now."

Troops who would like to get the military’s take on anthrax can call toll-free 1-877-438-8222 or e-mail AVIP officials at [email protected] The Pentagon also has an Internet site devoted to the program at www.anthrax.osd.mil.

There are numerous independent Internet sites that can be accessed by typing "anthrax vaccine" into any World Wide Web search engine. One of the more comprehensive sites is at: www.dallasnw.quick.com/cyberella/index.htm, a clearinghouse for dozens of documents, support group contacts, and links to other anthrax-related sites.