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Opponents of a controversial Pentagon program that is forcing all members of the military to be inoculated against anthrax have a new unlikely ally in U.S. Senator John McCain.
McCain, whom anthrax opponents say has never returned their calls or letters seeking his support, has called for a suspension of the mandatory program. McCain, a former Navy fighter pilot and perhaps the best-known POW in the country, is a loyal Pentagon supporter. In fact, Secretary of Defense William Cohen, who ordered the anthrax vaccination program and has consistently defended it, was best man at McCain's 1980 wedding.
Until recently, McCain has been campaigning hard to win the Republican nomination for president. But last week he suspended his campaign following primary election losses to Texas Governor George W. Bush.
Perhaps anthrax opponents shouldn't have been surprised when McCain announced last month his reluctance to move ahead with the anthrax program. He did it at a campaign rally in Balboa Park in San Diego, a city with a large population of Navy personnel and their families.
McCain told the crowd the military needed to do a better job convincing the public and the troops that the program is a necessary one. He called for "a pause" that would allow Pentagon officials to gather the research and scientific evidence that it is necessary for all 2.4 million members of the active and reserve armed forces to be vaccinated.
"I'm not saying that I know enough to say that it (the program) should never be, but right now members of the armed services, Guard and reserves are not accepting it," McCain said, according to a San Diego-Union Tribune article.
Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Jim Kolbe (R-Tucson) has signed on as co-sponsor of a House resolution which also would place a moratorium on the vaccination plan until further studies have been completed.
Kolbe says he has heard arguments on both sides of the issue from friends in the Air Force. He is supporting suspension of the program while questions about its safety and necessity are investigated further.
"It's better to err on the side of caution," he says. The congressman says the vaccine appears to be of limited value in protecting against a biological attack. And he says the chances of such an attack are slim. So he sees no "medical urgency" for moving ahead with the blanket inoculation policy.
Although the Pentagon says the program is necessary to protect troops against biological weapons, many in the military and the scientific community question the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine ("Shot to Hell," Laura Laughlin, January 27). They claim it is outdated and that it might not work on inhaled forms of anthrax, the most likely form of a biological weapon. There have been no studies of long-term effects, and they suspect the shots are linked to hundreds of cases of unexplained illnesses that some who have received the shots are experiencing -- including immune-system disorders, chronic joint and muscle pain and neurological problems.
The government says shots have been given to about 400,000 troops (about 6,000 in Arizona) with only a few documented cases of serious effects.
Hundreds of military personnel have refused the shots or left the military rather than roll up their sleeves. And dozens have been disciplined or court martialed for disobeying the order to be inoculated.
The mere mention of the anthrax vaccine by political leaders is a boost to those seeking a halt to the program. They had pushed for debate on the issue in the presidential race, but received little attention.
And they'll probably have an even tougher time convincing the two contenders remaining in the 2000 presidential race to take up their cause. The likely Democratic nominee, Vice President Al Gore, isn't expected to condemn a program begun during his administration.
Bush, a shoo-in for the GOP nomination, has been pledging in campaign speeches to boost morale in the armed services and build up the military. But last month he told veterans he hadn't heard anything about the two-year-old anthrax program.
Kolbe recently joined 38 other members of Congress in sponsoring HR 2548, which calls for a moratorium until further research is conducted. Another option floating around Congress would make the program voluntary rather than mandatory.
Aides say the congressman has been swayed by the number of comments and concerns about the program. Kolbe also has been in touch with southern Arizona constituents who have sought his help on the issue.
One of those is Robert Ramirez, a Davis-Monthan Air Force Base master sergeant who has been battling health problems since he began receiving the shots overseas in 1998. Ramirez, who was profiled in the New Timesarticle in January, says he tried for five months to get a response from McCain. He finally received a note from the senator's office asking him to sign a statement requesting an investigation into his case.
Meanwhile, an aide for Kolbe recently called Ramirez at home to ask how things were going. Ramirez says he suggested Kolbe conduct a Town Hall in Tucson to air out the issue with members of the military and others concerned about the program.