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Defense Leaders Commentary: Force Protection Remains My Priority

By Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen.
National Guard Bureau

WASHINGTON, July 25, 2000 – Text of an OP-ED statement appearing in the July 31, 2000 issues of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps Times newspapers.

As secretary of defense, I make the welfare, health and safety of men and women in uniform my top priority.

That is why in 1998 I accepted the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs to require vaccination of all U.S. military personnel against anthrax, a deadly biological warfare agent.

In making that decision I put safety first. I determined that vaccination is the safest, most reliable protection from a potential threat that is nearly always lethal to unprotected individuals.

I also put safety first when I ordered supplemental testing, consistent with Food and Drug Administration standards, to assure sterility, safety, potency and purity of the vaccine. Although the FDA has licensed anthrax vaccine for use, I wanted to make sure that every dose, whether from the stockpile or new production, met the highest quality and safety standards.

When we began the vaccinations, we had a stockpile of FDA- approved vaccine and one manufacturing facility that couldn't make enough vaccine to meet the military's needs. Bioport, a new company, took over anthrax vaccine production and began to replace the old plant with a modern facility. That facility cannot begin operations until it meets the high standards set by the FDA. We expect approval later this year.

The military has been conducting the vaccination program with FDA-approved doses from the stockpile. Now, however, we are running low on doses of stored vaccine that have passed the rigorous supplemental testing that I required.

Last week I again put safety first when I decided to slow the anthrax vaccination program until we can start producing vaccine from a new facility that meets the most stringent Food and Drug Administration standards.

To make the best use of doses that have been certified safe and effective, we will vaccinate only those facing the greatest risk in the high threat areas of Southwest Asia and Korea -- those who are deployed on the ground for 30 days or more. Vaccinations for those deployed to these high threat areas for less than 30 days will be deferred.

Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines deploying to high threat areas ashore for more than 30 days will start the standard FDA protocol of six doses over 18 months, plus annual boosters.

We will discontinue shots for those who leave the high threat area before the protocol is complete, and we will stop shots for others who have started the protocol but who are no longer in high threat areas. Units are, however, authorized to use remaining vaccine on hand locally to continue the shot series, if shipment of stocks to the high threat areas is not feasible.

For those whose next scheduled shot is deferred, we expect to resume the series of shots where it was interrupted, rather than to start it anew -- provided that the interruption is of reasonable length. In general, this means that those who have had the first three shots will resume the program with the fourth shot. The FDA supports this approach. Even the first shot begins to provide a degree of protection.

We will resume the full vaccination program as soon as we have a sufficient supply of safe, effective vaccine. The narrowing of the vaccination program reflects a temporary supply shortage -- nothing more. As Bioport, the sole vaccine supplier, works to achieve FDA certification for its new production facility, we will look for a second source of the vaccine to help meet future needs.

Anthrax remains the primary biological warfare threat to our forces. It is cheap to produce, easy to put into weapons, hard to detect and highly lethal when inhaled by those without protection. At least 10 countries have or are developing anthrax as a deadly weapon. This is why I added anthrax vaccination to our force protection program.

In the last two years, about 20 percent of our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have begun to receive protection against the deadly anthrax threat, with emphasis on those in the highest threat areas. There have been very few side effects. We will continue to concentrate on protecting troops in the highest threat areas.

Anthrax vaccinations are as necessary to protect our troops as are tetanus shots and helmets. The vaccine has a 30-year record of safe, effective use. We will continue to protect troops on long deployments to high threat areas, and we will quickly resume the full vaccination program as soon as supplies allow.

Troops deserve this protection, and they will get it.

Defense Leaders is a feature of the American Forces Press Service. It provides senior DoD leaders with an opportunity to speak directly to military service members, their families and DoD civilians on subjects of current interest.

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