American Forces Press Service

Defense Leaders Stand Firm on Anthrax Shot Program


  By Linda D. Kozaryn
 American Forces Press Service

 WASHINGTON -- They offered no options -- the lives of their 
 soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen are not negotiable. 
 Their message was clear: Anything less than DoD's mandatory 
 anthrax vaccination program is unacceptable.
 Senior military leaders recently delivered that firm 
 message to Congress. Late September hearings were held 
 because of congressional concerns about the impact on 
 military readiness of service members refusing 
 vaccinations. These concerns were fueled by controversial 
 reports, many of them sprouting up on small Internet sites, 
 that claim DoD's vaccine is untested and dangerous.
 Deputy Defense Secretary John J. Hamre testified on the 
 issue Sept. 30 before the Military Personnel Subcommittee 
 of the House Armed Services Committee. He was followed by 
 U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Anthony Zinni, commander, U.S. 
 Central Command and Dr. (Lt. Gen.) Ronald E. Blanck, 
 surgeon general of the Army. The Army is the immunization 
 program executive agent.
 Hamre stressed that DoD's Anthrax Vaccine Immunization 
 Program, implemented in March 1998, is a vital part of the 
 military's force protection strategy. Over the next seven 
 years, the department plans to immunize 2.4 million active 
 duty and reserve component personnel against the threat 
 posed by at least 10 nations suspected of having weaponized 
 The Defense Department received unequivocal evidence in 
 1997 that Iraq had weaponized anthrax, Hamre said. Anyone 
 in the U.S. Central Command's theater of operations is 
 especially at risk, and the anthrax vaccine is as necessary 
 for force protection as a flak jacket or a helmet, he said. 
 "If you don't get inoculated, you're going to die," he 
 said. Weapons-grade anthrax is as deadly as the Ebola virus 
 and virtually always fatal if inhaled. Anthrax normally is 
 a livestock disease transmitted to humans by skin contact 
 and though dangerous is not usually fatal if treated in 
 The DoD vaccine is the same one licensed in 1970 by the 
 U.S. Food and Drug Administration and used ever since by 
 the U.S. livestock industry. Internet misinformation and 
 rumormongering about the vaccine has alarmed some service 
 members, Hamre said.
 "I would admit we have not done a good enough job 
 explaining to all of the people at home," he said. Emphasis 
 was put on education of service members in Central Command, 
 where the threat was the most urgent, he said.
 The deputy noted that the Pentagon's top leaders, including 
 himself, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and other top 
 Pentagon leaders including every service chief, service 
 secretary and commander in chief have all taken the shots. 
 "I am not going to ask a soldier to put something in his 
 arm if I'm not prepared to take it first," Hamre said.
 Zinni acknowledged that anthrax vaccinations are voluntary 
 among allied and coalition forces, but he rejected a 
 voluntary program for the United States. "On battlefields, 
 we overwhelm our medical capability," he said. "If we 
 accept voluntary inoculation, I accept additional 
 As a commander, Zinni said, he would not place U.S. forces 
 in a position where they would be reliant on unvaccinated 
 coalition forces. "I think I would make that promise to any 
 American, mother, father or leader of this country," he 
 Blanck reported that the vaccination program as of Sept. 30 
 had immunized more than 340,000 personnel, including 27,000 
 guardsmen and reservists. Very few of those personnel have 
 experienced significant and serious side effects, he said, 
 and the numbers are consistent with the results of 
 extensive safety studies done over the years in humans.
 The anthrax vaccine is a biological product -- as are the 
 vaccines used for the seven other required immmunizations 
 troops receive, he said. "That means when they're injected, 
 there are often local side effects that include tenderness, 
 soreness, redness, a lump at the site, fever, muscle aches 
 and pains," he explained. The effects are mild and go away 
 on their own, he said.
 Blanck said 72 cases of serious side effects have been 
 reported that required hospitalization or missed duty for 
 greater than a day. Of those cases, FDA and Department of 
 Health and Human Services officials could attribute only 55 
 to the anthrax vaccine, he said, and all 55 service members 
 involved have returned to full duty.
 The surgeon general noted that there are no known long-term 
 health consequences to the vaccine, which can counter more 
 than 30 anthrax strains. About 500 employees at the Army's 
 Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, Md., 
 have received the vaccine since the 1970s and have 
 evidenced no signs of illness related to the vaccine, he 
 pointed out. 
 Blanck attributed problems in some units to a lack of 
 education. "In those organizations," he said, "the command 
 information program to get the soldiers and the troopers 
 the exact facts of the situation has not been what it 
 should be." He stressed that commanders' total involvement 
 is called for in educating service members about the threat 
 and the vaccine. 
 As a physician, Blanck concluded, the bottom line is very 
 clear. "If we're attacked with this agent and we have a 
 force that's vaccinated and protected, our soldiers, 
 sailors, airmen and Marines will largely survive. If 
 they're not vaccinated, they will inevitably die."
 Gen. John Keane, Army vice chief of staff, who accompanied 
 Hamre, said the threat of exposure to U.S. forces is real, 
 and he believes the vaccine is safe and effective.
 "We have a moral obligation to do everything in our power 
 to protect our troops from the anthrax threat," he said. 
 "Despite reports to the contrary, results so far have been 
 overwhelmingly positive. We have very few refusals, by 
 comparison, to the number of troops that we have 
 Although the military does not specifically track the 
 number of refusals, Keane said, they are ultimately gleaned 
 from military justice channels. Service members who refuse 
 the shots first go through education and counseling to 
 ensure they know all the facts and are making an informed 
 decision. If they still refuse, the commander can then 
 impose nonjudicial punishment, separation from the service 
 or court-martial.
 Keane said there have been few courts-martial, and all have 
 convened at the service members' insistence on a trial.