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Air Force News

Undersecretary of defense addresses anthrax immunizations issues

Released: 4 Sep 1998

by Staff Sgt. Christopher J. Haug
Pacific Air Forces News Service

HICKAM AIR FORCE BASE, Hawaii (AFNS) -- As anthrax vaccinations start this week for service members in Korea, a Department of Defense official addressed two concerns over the vaccine.

Rudy Frank de L eon, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said two common concerns raised by military members are the immunization of pregnant women and the experimental strains of anthrax not covered by the vaccine.

The anthrax vaccination consists of a series of six shots throughout an 18-month period. Protection increases with each shot. De Leon re-emphasized that "the anthrax immunization is safe and effective and has been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for more than 25 years."

As an extension of the immunization program (which began with immunizing service members and mission-essential civilians either assigned or scheduled to deploy to the Persian Gulf) de Leon stated that the program would now also include people assigned or scheduled to deploy to Korea.

"This is a very careful decision made by Secretary (of Defense William) Cohen and it's based on the threat that faces our forces and the fact that force protection begins with medical readiness," de Leon said.

When asked about reports of new strains of anthrax not covered by the current vaccine, de Leon said, "There have been reports in the civilian newspapers that the Russians invented a new strain of anthrax that is different."

"Our intelligence shows that there was at one time some research in the former Soviet Union in this area."

He explained, however, that this "experimental form of anthrax is not stable" and that it would be "very hard to weaponize."

"To weaponize a biological agent and to deliver it by way of a weapon, (the agent) must be stable and the research did not show the new strain as being stable," he said.

The only form that can be weaponized at this point is the form that the anthrax vaccine protects against, he said.

Another concern was the vaccination of pregnant women.

"At this point, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved the use of the vaccine on pregnant women," said Mary Gerwin, senior adviser on health affairs to the assistant secretary of defense.

The chief of medical operations for the Pacific Air Forces Command Surgeon, Col. Charles Cotta, said, since the vaccine contains no living organisms, it poses no danger to women who become pregnant after receiving the vaccine.

He also said that medical science research available on the vaccine backs up the claim that the vaccine poses no threat to pregnant women. He said the FDA's ruling not to immunize pregnant women is in place because the stringent tests that must be conducted for their approval have not been done.

However, he said, the vaccine has been given to thousands of females in many countries in its more than 20 years of existence and there are no reports of the vaccine causing any health problems for pregnant females.

The vaccine prevents the illness by stimulating the body's natural disease-fighting abilities. Human anthrax vaccines were developed in England and the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s. The vaccine military members are receiving was licensed by the FDA in 1970.

Anthrax is a disease normally associated with plant-eating animals (sheep, goats, cattle, and to lesser degree swine). It has been recognized as an illness for centuries. Through animal vaccination programs it has been controlled; however, it still shows up in areas where animals are not vaccinated like Africa and Asia.

Human infection with anthrax usually results from direct contact with infected animals, or animal byproducts such as wool, meat or hides; however, when anthrax is used as a biological weapon, people become infected by breathing anthrax spores that are released into the air.

People who are exposed to anthrax may not know it for many hours until the illness takes hold. The illness ends in death in 95 percent of its victims.

Symptoms of inhalation anthrax can begin as early as 24 hours after breathing the spores. Initial symptoms include: fever, cough, and weakness. It usually progresses to breathing problems, shock, and death.

"The right kind of force protection is to give people medical protection against anthrax," de Leon said. "The secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and all of the services commanders in chiefs have had the vaccine."

The immunization is quite similar to the immunizations people received as children. The closest comparison is the diphtheria immunization, de Leon said. (Courtesy of PACAF News Service)

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