DoD to Continue Smallpox Vaccinations Despite Soldier Death
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 23, 2006 The Defense Department has no plans to discontinue its smallpox vaccination program, despite yesterday's announcement that vaccinations may have caused a soldier's death.
A panel of military doctors concluded that vaccinations may have caused the death of Army Pfc. Christopher "Justin" Abston.
Abston received the smallpox and injectable influenza vaccines in November at Fort Bragg, N.C., and died suddenly in his barracks room 16 days later, on Dec. 4, Pentagon officials said.
His autopsy revealed an inflammation of the heart muscle, or "myocarditis." The smallpox vaccine is one of several known triggers of this condition. Evidence of another known trigger for the condition was found during the autopsy.
"Evidence of the vaccinia virus, the main ingredient of smallpox vaccine, was not found in his heart muscle, but evidence of a different virus, parvovirus B19, was found," a Defense Department release stated. "Natural infection with parvovirus B19 is another known cause of heart inflammation and death."
A panel of military medical experts determined it is "neither probable nor unlikely," merely "possible," that vaccinations caused Abston's death.
Abston is the only servicemember whose death has been linked to the smallpox vaccine. Of 1 million servicemembers vaccinated through the program, 120 developed myocarditis or similar conditions, but all others survived.
DoD initiated the smallpox vaccination program in December 2002 to protect servicemembers from the highly contagious smallpox disease, Air Force Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told American Forces Press Service. The program is used to protect troops assigned to U.S. Central Command, U.S. Forces Korea, or designated units with homeland defense missions.
"The smallpox vaccine has been given billions of times to Americans and people all over the world in the last century," Krenke said. Hundreds of studies have assessed the vaccine, and DoD will continue to monitor the safety of the smallpox vaccine and all other vaccines it uses to protect servicemembers, she said.
Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, expressed condolences to Abston's family and regret about his death. "Medicine remains an inexact science," he said. "And when we lose one of our soldiers, we recognize how much about medicine that we still do not know."