Anthrax Vaccine Called Effective Force Protection
By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON -- Despite a few well-publicized attacks against
DoD's mandatory anthrax vaccination program, a senior
defense health official said the vaccines are safe,
effective and necessary.
"We're pleased with the progress of the vaccination
program. We're following it very closely to make sure we do
it right," said Rear Adm. Michael Cowan, medical readiness
director on the Joint Staff.
Cowan said the anthrax program received the full backing
and approval of the federal Food and Drug Administration,
and that both DoD and the FDA test and approve all batches
of the vaccine at the manufacturing facility in Michigan.
He said adverse reactions by people receiving the vaccine
have been extremely low.
"The side effect percentage is something like .0002
percent, which makes it many times safer, for example, than
the diphtheria shots we give our children," Cowan said.
There's been just one reported reaction by a service member
who experienced Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a type of
temporary paralysis associated with other vaccines, surgery
and insect stings. The affected service member fully
recovered, Cowan said, and the Pentagon is on the lookout
for any additional cases of side effects.
Critics of the vaccine program question the safety and
quality of the manufacturer, Bioport Corp. of Lansing,
Mich. They cite a February FDA inspection that found
deviations from FDA standards in record-keeping and testing
procedures. The report suggested that some service members
have received inoculations from a 1993 batch that didn't
get a required FDA revalidation before it was put to use.
"That batch was properly revalidated," Cowan said. "There
has never been a batch that's gone out that has not been
current and fully FDA-approved." The FDA and DoD work
closely with Bioport anytime inspections find fault with
production or record-keeping processes at the plant, the
admiral said. The FDA and a DoD contractor test all vaccine
produced by Bioport for sterility, stability, purity and
Cowan compared the tests to the way NASA checks and
rechecks the space shuttle and launch vehicles.
"NASA is famous for having redundant procedures to make
sure that, if anything goes wrong, there's another
procedure in place to catch it, and another procedure in
place to catch that," he said. "You can't have a flat tire
in space and pull over to fix it.
"The FDA is the same way. They have very tight controls and
many checks to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.
We're very comfortable with them and we think they've done
their job to make sure no problems occur [with the anthrax
vaccine]. Bioport also has shown a very strong intent to do
their job right."
Cowan attributes some of the fear and paranoia over the
anthrax program to irresponsible distribution of
information, mostly over the Internet.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there, and it's the
responsibility of each individual to not only get
information about things that affect him, but test the
quality of that information," he said. He recommended
service members and their families visit the DoD anthrax
Web site, currently located on the DoD home page at
"We're updating the anthrax Web site, trying to target our
audience and speak to them in terms that are easy to
understand," he said. "Folks who visit the [revamped] Web
site are going to find more information in a format they're
Anthrax inoculations fall under the much broader category
of force medical protection, which includes surveillance of
areas where biological weapons may be a threat; early
detection of chemical attacks; the use of antibiotics and
other medicines to treat symptoms of biological
contamination; and a host of other measures. Anthrax gets
attention, Cowan said, because it is deadly and easily
obtained, transported and added to explosives.
The vaccine targets the essence, or heart, of anthrax,
making it highly effective, Cowan said. However, Russian
scientists recently reported they had genetically altered
anthrax, making it resistant to their vaccine. Such a
strain would provide a potent and fatal weapon if it falls
into the hands of a rogue nation or transnational
terrorists. Cowan said DoD is attempting to obtain the
altered strain for testing against the Bioport vaccine.
"We are just as serious as we can be about protecting our
forces from all ends," Cowan said. And because anthrax is
easily turned into a biological weapon, he said, the
vaccine will continue to be mandatory for service members.
"It takes very little skill to obtain the wild anthrax
culture and use it in some sort of weapon," he said.
"Anthrax is the poor man's atomic bomb. By immunizing our
force, we are immunizing ourselves against an 'atomic'
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