Anthrax Vaccination Program


On May 18, 1998, Secretary of Defense William Cohen approved a plan to vaccinate all U.S. service members for anthrax. This plan has caused a fierce ethical debate over the legitimacy of this vaccination. The Department of Defense claims the vaccination is completely safe and has been in use for decades. Some doctors dispute this claim, and contend the vaccination may not be effective against weapon versions of anthrax. Many service members have refused the vaccination and have either separated or faced formal punishment for their decision.
The Bioport Corporation of Lansing Michigan is the only company that produces the anthrax vaccine. According to a Phoenix Times article, the original Bioport plant had to be demolished due to quality control problems. A new plant was built, but it also failed FDA inspections in December of 1999. Subsequently, the process of administering the vaccination to all service members has been suspended. The vaccination is currently administered only to personnel deploying to ?high threat? areas of the world. The Joint Staff has designated Korea, Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Yemen, and Israel as high-threat areas. The immunization is administered in a series of six shots over an eighteen-month period, with annual boosters. The following analysis will contain a brief discussion about both sides of this issue.
To understand why the Department of Defense feels it is essential to take such precautions, it is first necessary to have some understanding of what anthrax is. Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia defines anthrax as ?a contagious disease of warm-blooded animals, including humans, caused by the bacterium Bacillus anthracis.? There are three types of anthrax diseases. The first is cutaneous anthrax, which is caused by contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products. The second type is gastrointestinal anthrax, which is caused by ingestion of contaminated meat. The last type is inhalation anthrax, which is the type used in biological weapons. It is caused by the inhalation of anthrax spores and it is the most deadly type of the disease. One of the most effective defenses against inhaling the deadly spores is a properly worn gas mask. The DOD fears that by the time an attack is detected, it will be too late to don protective clothing. Theory suggests that immunization may be the only chance of surviving an attack.
With so many biological weapons in production, one may wonder why bother with a vaccination that is only going to protect personnel against one type of weapon. The DOD feels that anthrax spores are ? the top choice in biological weapons for germ warfare.? They say it is one of the most effective biological weapons because it is almost always deadly if not treated early. In addition, it is relatively simple to manufacture in large quantities with only a basic knowledge of biology. The spores can be stored for long periods with no deterioration, and it can be delivered easily using missiles, rockets, artillery, bombs or sprayers. Once the weapon has been dispersed, there are virtually no indications of exposure. The vapor is odorless, colorless, taste-free and leaves no cloud. DOD claims there is no effective treatment once exposure has occurred. They suggest antibiotics will suppress infection, but only if they are administered within 48 hours of exposure. They also claim unprotected individuals have a 99% chance of death after exposure.
The Secretary of Defense has stated that it would be derelict l to send troops into one of the ?high threat? areas without this vaccination. Other senior officers have frequently used the analogy ?It would be like sending troops into harm's way without a helmet or flack vest.? This theory brings up a question about whether the vaccination is safe and effective. DOD's point of view suggests the vaccine is safe and will work. Their anthrax web site uses the reasoning that we already receive vaccines to protect against typhoid, yellow fever and many other diseases, so it makes sense to protect ourselves against this ?killing disease which can be used as a weapon.? The vaccine was developed for human use in the 1960's and approved by the FDA in 1970. DOD states that it has been ?routinely administered? to at risk wool mill workers, veterinarians, live stock handlers,