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Winkenwerder: Reservist's Death Was Tragic, Unavoidable

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 19, 2003 – Two independent, DoD-requested medical panels recently concluded it's possible that vaccinations given to an Army reservist caused a severe illness that led to her death, DoD's senior health care official said here Nov. 18.

Lupus, a disease that attacks the immune system, claimed the life of Army Spc. Rachel Lacy, according to Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.

Lacy's demise was "rare and tragic," Winkenwerder emphasized, noting that under the circumstances, "there was nothing that could have been done to avoid this most unfortunate event."

According to the panels' findings, he continued, it's apparent from additional testing of stored blood samples that the 22-year-old reservist "had an underlying condition that predisposed her to this lupus disease."

The Lacy case in no way is indicative of problems within DoD's immunization program, Winkenwerder noted. Vaccinations administered to service members, he emphasized, "are FDA-approved; they're safe and effective."

It's extremely rare, Winkenwerder remarked, for service members and civilians who receive DoD-administered vaccinations to experience adverse medical events.

On March 2, 2003, Lacy, an Illinois resident, had received vaccinations against anthrax, hepatitis B, measles-mumps-rubella, smallpox, and typhoid along with other soldiers of the 452nd Combat Support Hospital at Fort McCoy, Wis.

Doctors had prescreened the 22-year-old reservist, Winkenwerder pointed out, noting she "had been in good health." No latent health issues had surfaced prior to her receiving the vaccinations and a tuberculosis test in preparation for her unit's deployment to the Persian Gulf.

However, the combat medic soon fell ill, according to DoD documents, was eventually transferred to a civilian hospital for intensive care, and died April 4.

After Lacy's death, Winkenwerder noted DoD "thought it was appropriate to go into greater detail to determine what might have happened in that situation, whether that person's death was in any way related to vaccinations."

To date, almost a million service members have received anthrax immunizations, Winkenwerder noted, and over half a million have been vaccinated against smallpox. This, he added, is in addition to the millions of service members who receive other kinds of vaccinations each year.

He noted that the independent panels also determined that three other persons who've received similar, DoD-administered vaccinations like Lacy who'd also become seriously ill did not become sick because of vaccinations.

A small percentage of service members who'd received similar vaccinations in recent years, Winkenwerder noted, have experienced relatively mild adverse reactions, which "is not unusual at all."

Winkenwerder unequivocally discounted news reports saying DoD is not reporting all instances of ill effects of its service member immunization program.

"The facts are the facts; the truth is the truth," he asserted, pointing to the integrity of the independent panels' conclusions.

The review lasted months, Winkenwerder pointed out, because experts on the panels conducted careful and extensive studies.

DoD health officials, he asserted, "want to better understand possible ill- health effects caused by immunizations, and we believe it is important to keep our service members informed."

The vaccinations given to Lacy, Winkenwerder reiterated, "might have triggered something in her immune system that kicked off the lupus that subsequently led to her death."

The DoD-requested, independent panels called in to investigate the reservist's case, he continued, concluded that neither Lacy nor her doctors knew of her predisposition to illness.

The panels' conclusions were arrived at using "the best science possible," Winkenwerder concluded.

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