Shot to Hell

Mandatory participation in military's anthrax vaccine program pushes plunger on medical controversy

More than halfway through what he hoped would be a long career in the military, an Arizona Air National Guard member we'll call Joe is struggling to decide whether to take a mandatory shot he believes could endanger his health.

The Pentagon says Joe and the other 2.4 million members of the active and reserve military in the United States must be vaccinated to protect them from a biological attack involving anthrax, a lethal bacterial weapon. But Joe is torn between his duty to his country -- including a promise to obey orders -- and his concern for his health and the financial stability of his family.

He is worried. So worried that he doesn't want his name used or anything revealed that could identify him. He has seen what happens in the military when you question authority. He says people have gotten in trouble for merely suggesting that the issue be looked into further.

Joe, a member of the 161st Refueling Wing of the Guard installation near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, first heard about the anthrax vaccine a year ago. He sat through a meeting about it that left him wondering.

"They said it was safe and approved by the FDA. But there were a lot of questions they couldn't answer," he says.

Joe, who's in his 30s, and his wife did their own research. They learned some unsettling things: that many across the country claim the shots have been making them sick, that some -- even experts -- are questioning the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines and that anyone who refuses to take them are being punished.

Joe says about 40 members of his Guard unit -- including a couple of his friends -- quit rather than begin the series of shots. And he expects more to follow when the vaccines are doled out to everyone. Others who were deployed to Kosovo or the Middle East already began the series of shots, he says, and many are suffering ill effects.

"They are just being knocked on their butts. And these are tough guys," he says.

Among the symptoms his friends suffer from are debilitating fatigue and insomnia. One complains of an itchy, crawly feeling on his head.

Joe and his wife can't say for sure the shots have caused their friends' problems. But they are not convinced it is safe. They don't believe it will have any effect on inhaled anthrax -- the most likely form of contamination. And they fear it could affect their plans to start a family.

The Department of Defense, on its official anthrax program Web site (www.anthrax.osd.mil/), includes reassurances that the vaccine won't harm any baby conceived while the father is taking the shots. But Joe and his wife -- who accuses the government of using its military as guinea pigs -- aren't so easily swayed.

Joe and others hope that the program may be delayed long enough that their service will be over, or canceled before they actually have to roll up their sleeves. But if Joe has to quit or be kicked out, he would lose his benefits and a substantial retirement. And he would have to hit the streets to try to find a new job. Without a college degree, he's not sure where he would go.

The anthrax program was first announced in December 1997 by U.S. Secretary of Defense William Cohen. Originally budgeted as a $130 million, six-year program, the cost has increased by $24 million, and there may be at least a year delay because of problems with the only anthrax vaccine manufacturing plant in the United States.

Pentagon officials and their medical experts insist the shots are safe, effective and necessary to protect the U.S. military from the threat of an international or domestic anthrax attack. Originally a disease associated with certain livestock, new forms of anthrax have been developed for use in biological warfare. And experts say even one deep breath of airborne anthrax could be enough to kill a person.

The vaccine, a series of six shots over an 18-month period plus annual boosters, has been given to more than 400,000 troops so far in the first phase of the program, military officials say. According to the program's three-phase schedule, those who are deploying to risky areas like the Middle East and Korea will be the first to get the shots, those who would back up those troops would be the second and the remainder of the military would follow.

In the Phoenix area, the Air National Guard -- which is often sent to risky zones -- would need to have larger percentages of its members inoculated than troops at Luke Air Force Base, which is primarily a training installation.

Defense Department authorities are standing firm behind not only the need for the vaccinations, but the safety of the program. They point out that many top officials -- including Defense Secretary Cohen and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- have completed the vaccine series with no ill effects. And their Web site includes reports from many who say they have received the shots with no reaction.

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