DoD Officials Disagree With House Report on Anthrax
By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 17, 2000 DoD officials today said they had no intention of ending their program of mandatory anthrax vaccinations for service members, despite a House of Representatives panel's recommendation that the program should be suspended.
"The Department of Defense is very confident in the anthrax program that we have undertaken," said Dr. Sue Bailey, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, at a Pentagon briefing today. "We have a very safe and effective vaccine against a very deadly biologic agent that we know to be in the hands of many of our adversaries.
"Were [service members] not vaccinated and exposed to this agent, they would die a horrible death. It is our mission to protect those forces," Bailey said.
A critical report released today by the Government Reform Committee's National Security subcommittee stated the military's program to inoculate all 2.4 million troops against anthrax was based on "dangerously narrow scientific" evidence. The panel recommended the vaccination program be suspended and the vaccine be considered experimental.
The Pentagon's top bio-defense official, Marine Maj. Gen. Randy L. West, said he was disappointed by much of what was in that report. West is the special advisor to the secretary of defense for anthrax and bio-defense affairs.
"There are a lot of allegations in there that I believe were appropriately answered during the seven hearings that we had on this issue last year," West said, referring to Congressional hearings on the anthrax vaccination program held in September and October 1999. "I believe if you take many of the negative comments that are made in the report and go back and bounce them against the testimony that was given, you'll find many of those concerns were adequately addressed."
However, West said, he's glad that the committee called DoD's program a well-intended effort and that the members recognized there is a legitimate threat. "I would champion their proposal that we aggressively seek a better vaccine," he said. In fact, the general said, there's currently a funded, aggressive program under the supervision of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta to do just that.
"We also believe anything that we can do to improve the shot protocol would be a good thing," West said. "If you can give this vaccination in less than six shots, you're probably going to have fewer reactions, and the fewer reactions we have the better it is."
West said DoD budgeted $20 million in 1999 to work with the CDC and determine ways to improve the program. He said those efforts are in four areas: shot regimen, gender differences, method of delivering the vaccine, and determining the amount of immunity gained from the regimen.
But, he said, pending improvements shouldn't prevent DoD from using the best measures currently available. "We should always want better medicine. We should always want to find a better vaccine. We should always want to find ways to administer it that are less invasive," West said. "But those things take time. Those are months or years away, and we've got troops that are in danger of aerosolized, weaponized anthrax today. We can't wait until we've got a new and improved vaccine to give them the protection they need."
Bailey agreed. "[Anthrax] is as deadly as ebola," she said, explaining that anthrax is almost 100 percent deadly if not treated before symptoms develop.
She explained DoD requires service members to receive many vaccines that aren't voluntary. "It is not only to protect the troops but to protect the effectiveness of the mission," Bailey said. She used the example of tetanus vaccine being required during World War II. "Although there were millions of wounds and casualties, we only had 12 cases of tetanus," she said. "It's that kind of protection that medicine can afford to our troops, and we are intent upon providing that to them."