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Pentagon Plans Mass Anthrax Vaccinations

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 16, 1997 – All active duty and Selected Reserve service members will be vaccinated against anthrax bacteria, DoD officials announced Dec. 15.

Slated to begin summer 1998, the shots will mark the first time DoD routinely inoculates U.S. troops against a germ warfare agent.

Initially, DoD will inoculate some 100,000 service members and mission-essential civilians either assigned to or scheduled to deploy to the Persian Gulf and South Korea. Then, over the next seven years, it will vaccinate all 2.4 million total force members, including all new recruits, at a start-up cost of $130 million.

DoD suspects at least 10 countries have or are developing a biological warfare capability, and anthrax is the easiest biological agent to incorporate into a weapon, officials said. When inhaled by humans, anthrax spores cause severe pneumonia and death within a week.

After several years' studies, military medical and force protection specialists concluded the vaccination program is the safest and surest way of protecting highly mobile U.S. forces. Anthrax, they said, is 99 percent lethal to unprotected individuals, but the vaccination would protect all but about 5 percent of warfighters if anthrax was released into the air over a battlefield.

"This is a force protection issue," Secretary of Defense William Cohen said in a statement. "To be effective, medical force protection must be comprehensive, well documented and consistent. I have instructed the military to put such a program into effect."

The vaccinations will begin only after the Pentagon is convinced of the safety, potency and purity of anthrax vaccination stockpiles and after the Army, as executive agent, sets up an effective personnel tracking system. Cohen also appointed Dr. Gerald Burrow of Yale University to review and assess the plan before implementation.

"We owe it to our people to move ahead with this immunization plan, but we also want to make sure that our overall immunization program is safe and effective," Cohen said.

Widely used in the United States since the early 1970s by livestock workers and veterinarians, the anthrax vaccine is FDA-licensed and exhibits fewer side effects than flu or typhoid vaccines, senior DoD officials said. The military currently immunizes people working in at-risk jobs and some 3,000 personnel assigned to special operations units, the Army Technical Escort Unit and the Marine Chemical-Biological Initial Response Force.

Anthrax immunizations consist of a series of six inoculations over an 18-month period, followed by annual boosters. Although protection levels increase as shots in the series are given, full protection requires the entire six-shot series, officials said.

"This is an important new dimension to overall force protection," Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre said. "The anthrax vaccination will join other immunizations we already give everyone in the military."

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