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The Anthrax Vaccine: Safe, Effective and Necessary

By Charles L. Cragin
Special to American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 17, 1999 – One of warfare's guiding principles has always been that a weakened enemy is a more easily defeated enemy.

Historically, this principle seems to have had particular relevance when it came to biological weapons. The first recorded use of biological warfare involved the Romans, who placed animal carcasses in the water supplies of their enemies -- an act of creative attack that poisoned the water, thinned the opposition's ranks and dealt a mortal blow to enemy morale. In later centuries, the Tartars took this concept one step further by catapulting bodies infected with bubonic plague over the walls of besieged cities.

These rudimentary attempts pale in comparison to the ability of modern technology to perfect the means and methods of biological warfare. As such weapons become more powerful, accurate and deadly, and more available and easier to deliver, our military personnel are increasingly at risk.

Today, at least 10 countries, including Iraq and North Korea, now have -- or are attempting to acquire or produce -- biological weapons. Within this context, anthrax remains the weapon of choice for germ warfare: As Secretary of Defense William Cohen has said, "It is very easy to weaponize and almost always deadly."

When anthrax is inhaled, death is the predictable outcome for those who have not been vaccinated. Once clinical symptoms appear, death is assured despite the most heroic, state-of-the- art, post-exposure medical intervention and treatment. Death from anthrax can be prevented by vaccination -- it provides our men and women in uniform with their only chance of survival.

In an effort to protect our military personnel from the anthrax threat, the Department of Defense has begun inoculating the Total Force with the anthrax vaccine. Over the next seven years, 1.4 million active duty personnel and some 900,000 members of the Selected Reserve will be immunized.

I have taken four in the series of six anthrax shots as required by the Food and Drug Administration for full protection. Secretary Cohen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Hugh Shelton, and numerous other senior military and civilian leaders have done the same, and they, too, are on their way to full protection against this threat.

The anthrax vaccine has had an excellent safety record since it was first licensed and approved by the FDA in 1970. Before Secretary Cohen authorized the use of a single dose, he ordered supplemental testing of the vaccine, doubly ensuring the vaccine's safety and far exceeding any pharmaceutical industry standards. Supplemental testing, combined with the ongoing supervision of the FDA, demonstrates that the vaccine is safe and effective.

In addition, many independent organizations have explicitly endorsed the vaccine, including the FDA, the World Health Organization, the American Public Health Association, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Centers for Disease Control, the American College of Physicians, and the National Institutes of Health.

As of July 1999, more than 315,000 service members have received over 1,013,000 shots. The rate of FDA-reported adverse reactions for this vaccine is less than those reported for other vaccines, such as typhoid and hepatitis A and B, making this one of the safest vaccination programs in history. The department will continue to closely monitor any adverse reactions and provide appropriate and timely medical evaluation and care.

The Department of Defense is also working closely with the BioPort Corp., currently the vaccine's only FDA-licensed manufacturer, to ensure the continued sterility, safety, potency and purity of the vaccine and to ensure a sufficient supply to meet the department's requirements. BioPort purchased the anthrax vaccine production facility from the State of Michigan in 1998, and since then has upgraded and added to its existing facility.

Sending our men and women in uniform into harm's way without anthrax protection would deny them the protection they need and threaten the critical missions they are called upon to perform. Just as we would not send our forces into battle without helmets and flak jackets, we cannot send them into an arena unprotected from another known threat -- anthrax.

Simply put, if we stop anthrax protection today, we would threaten force health protection tomorrow. Secretary Cohen and Gen. Shelton said it more succinctly when they recently wrote: "Our commanders must know that all, not simply some fraction, of their forces are protected from this biologic threat. Soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines fight in teams and they need to know that all team members are protected from anthrax."

Our men and women in uniform are routinely vaccinated against many diseases, including tetanus, diphtheria, influenza, hepatitis A, measles, mumps, rubella, polio and yellow fever. The anthrax vaccine will protect our personnel from another disease -- a disease that will kill, a disease that can be used as a weapon. So what we are doing today is no different from what we have always tried to do: We are taking prudent measures to protect the Total Force.

The anthrax protection program is the right course of action and the most effective way to counter this lethal threat. The vaccine is safe, effective, FDA-licensed and essential for protecting all our personnel -- active duty, National Guard and Reserve.

If you have questions, ask your commanders or medical personnel; go to the department's official anthrax Web site at: www.anthrax.osd.mil; or call the new anthrax hot line at 1-877- GETVACC.

Above all, understand the basic facts: Anthrax kills, vaccination protects.

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