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Dr. Sue Bailey, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, summed up the Pentagon's views during a briefing on the program in December: "The vaccine is safe and very effective. The vaccine has very few side effects, and they are mild and they are temporary."
Officials say the vaccine, approved by the Federal Drug Administration in 1970, has been successfully given to people who come into contact with livestock that could carry the disease, the government says. And although production of the vaccine has been temporarily halted because of problems with a new BioPort Corporation manufacturing plant in Lansing, Michigan, defense officials say they have millions of doses stockpiled and are continuing to inoculate those in the first phase of the program.
Opponents of the program point out numerous causes for concern. They're particularly suspicious in light of the multitude of similar medical complaints from military personnel in the Gulf War.
They say the anthrax vaccine that was approved 30 years ago by the FDA is being given to troops now. But, they say, the studies to determine the safety of the vaccine were actually done on a different vaccine. They raise serious questions about the purity and consistency of the doses being administered. They say while the government touts studies showing the vaccine effective in protecting laboratory animals against an anthrax contact, those same studies show the vaccine may not work against inhaled anthrax -- the most likely form of biological warfare -- and numerous other strains of the disease.
And some -- including the Government Accounting Office -- are warning that there are no long-term studies regarding the safety of the vaccine.
Troubles with the BioPort Corporation's production plant are further alarming those opposed to the anthrax vaccination program. The company, which is headed by Admiral William Crowe, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, bought the facility from the state of Michigan. But because of quality-control problems, the plant had to be razed and a new one built. In December, the FDA announced that the new plant failed safety inspections.
Although the government claims there have been only six cases of reactions to the shot serious enough to require hospitalization, statements before congressional subcommittees -- as well as an abundance of testimonials on the Internet -- suggest a much higher incidence of adverse reactions.
Meryl Nass, a Maine doctor who is an expert on anthrax and biological weapons, says she believes as many as 10 percent of those receiving the vaccine could be getting ill. With more than 400,000 members of the national military forces already getting shots -- including nearly 6,000 from Arizona's military installations -- that would mean more than 40,000 adverse reactions.
At the Arizona Air National Guard, 15 people have begun the series of shots, including the base commander, according to Captain Eileen Bienz, a Guard spokeswoman. She says a plan to inoculate the rest of the nearly 900 guardsmen has been put on hold because of problems getting the vaccine and because of concerns raised by personnel.
At Luke Air Force Base, public affairs spokesperson Mary Jo May says 840 people are receiving the series of shots. None has refused and none has experienced "reportable" adverse reactions, she says.
In Tucson, according to the Air Force Surgeon General's Office, more than 1,300 active duty troops at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base are being immunized. The Army says more than 1,100 have received the shots at Fort Huachuca and 60 reservists throughout the state have also begun the regimen.
The government says it has records of about 200 people across the country refusing to take the shots -- none in Arizona.
But people in the military as well as others who are following the issue say that hundreds more are getting out of the service to avoid the program. And interviews with people familiar with the programs at Arizona's military installations say dozens have resigned -- or plan to -- rather than submit to the series of shots.
Dr. Jane Orient, a Tucson internist who heads a national organization called Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, says she worries about the loss of large numbers of pilots and other seasoned members of the military. At a time when the Pentagon admits its military population is declining and recruitment is difficult, she and others say the mandatory anthrax program is hurting already depleted forces.
"It's a national security issue," she says.
Schuyler McCorkle is not the type of guy who is leery of shots. In fact, the opposite is true. As a commercial airline pilot and an officer in the Arizona Air National Guard, he made sure he always got all his immunizations and even annual flu shots. He felt he needed that to protect himself against strange diseases, biological warfare attacks, as well as common illnesses he might encounter while overseas or while breathing recirculated air in the cockpit of a plane.
And so when the 20-year Guard veteran was asked about a year ago to help implement the anthrax inoculation program for about 900 members of the 161st Refueling Wing at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, he didn't question the wisdom of the decision. A firm believer that the military should be protected against the deadly anthrax virus, he set about scheduling the shots, a complicated task given the fact that the program calls for a carefully timed regimen.