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Don't Equate Anthrax Shots and PB Controversy, Cohen Says

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates, Oct. 20, 1999 – DoD's ongoing anthrax vaccination program and its use of pyridostigmine bromide during the 1991 Gulf War aren't the same -- and no one should equate the two, Defense Secretary William Cohen said Oct. 20.

There is no correlation between the anthrax vaccine and PB, Cohen said during a press conference here. Anthrax vaccine has been used in the civilian community since 1970, when the Food and Drug Administration approved its use, he said. Its side effects are similar to those of flu and other common immunizations -- they're mostly mild and go away on their own and known serious ones are rare.

"What we have to do is make the best possible policy judgments," Cohen said. "Given the potential for our forces to be exposed to an anthrax threat, which is one of the most deadly they could encounter, it would be irresponsible not to insist they be properly protected."

The secretary last year required that independent experts test the anthrax vaccine and approve it before he would allow the vaccination program to proceed. "In order to show that I believe absolutely in the safety, in the veracity of the vaccine, I've had six of the vaccine injections to date," he said.

Cohen said he knows some critics argue that service members should be allowed to choose to take the shots. "You would not send one of your warriors into the field without a helmet saying 'I don't want to wear a helmet,'" he said. "You would not send a soldier into the field without a flak jacket, saying 'I prefer to have an open shirt.'

The pyridostigmine bromide situation is different. The investigational drug was not fully FDA-licensed but was the only available protection against soman, a deadly nerve agent known to be present in the Persian Gulf region before and during the war. At the time, soman was considered a greater risk than PB's possible side effects, DoD officials said, estimating 250,000 troops received packets of the drug.

The Pentagon released a RAND Corp. report Oct. 19 that suggested there could be a connection between PB and Gulf War illnesses and called for further study because available information is inconclusive. The RAND study speculated hot, stressful conditions such as Desert Storm might cause the brain to absorb larger-than-normal amounts of PB, which in turn might affect the brain chemical that regulates sleep, pain, mood, muscle function and thinking.

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