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Personnel Most Exposed to Get Anthrax Vaccine First

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 12, 1998 – Service members most vulnerable to an anthrax attack will be the first inoculated against the biological weapon, the Army's top doctor said here recently.

Lt. Gen. Ronald R. Blanck, Army surgeon general, said the total force inoculation program will begin in August. The Army is the lead agent for the DoD program.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff will determine which units receive the vaccine first. The vaccination schedule is classified. "By and large the folks who respond first will get the immunization first," Blanck said. He said he assumed overseas members would be high up the list.

All active and reserve component members will receive the vaccinations. Some reserve component members may receive the shots before active duty personnel if their jobs could expose them to biological attack, said Army Surgeon General officials. The Army will offer the vaccine to U.S. government civilian employees if they are deployed or employed in danger areas.

President Clinton announced the expansion of the vaccination program May 22 during the Naval Academy commencement in Annapolis, Md. Troops in the Persian Gulf region -- most at risk to an Iraqi biological attack -- started the inoculations in March. To date, more than 40,000 service members based in that region, or going there, have started the six-shot series.

Blanck said the shots are safe. The FDA approved the vaccine in the early 1970s, and civilian experience validates its safety. Still, Defense Secretary William S. Cohen set four conditions before starting inoculation.

First, he ordered supplemental testing of the vaccine produced by Michigan Biologic Products Institute. Second, the services had to assure tracking of every vaccination. Third, DoD and the services had to devise a plan to educate service members about the inoculation program. Finally, DoD would proceed only if an external review showed the program was safe and would protect service members.

"Those have all been completed, and it was based on meeting those four preconditions that [Secretary Cohen] allowed us to proceed in March with the in-theater immunization of folks in Southwest Asia," a senior military official said during a background briefing.

After the first shot, service members receive the others at two weeks, four weeks, six months, 12 months and 18 months. Annual booster shots maintain their protection. The entire series costs about $20 per person. It will take five to seven years to inoculate all service members.

"Of course, it will never actually be completed, because we always have new people coming into the force," Blanck said.

To date, he said, the most common side effect service members have experienced is arm soreness.

"This is not a live vaccine. It is a killed bacteria, so you would not expect there to be side effects from the shot itself," he said. "The antibodies that [the vaccine] produces can sometimes cause that local soreness. I suspect that we'll see more of that when folks get into their fifth and sixth shot."

Blanck said DoD is assessing other biological threats. He named plague, Q-fever, tularemia and botulinum as some germs enemies could use against U.S. forces. He said Army surgeon general researchers are working on vaccines to counter these threats.

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