Army won't force soldiers to get anthrax vaccinations Despite its about-face, Pentagon will proceed with troop immunizations

September 11, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Army officials have changed their minds: They will not use force to give shots to soldiers who refuse their anthrax vaccinations.

"The Army is amending its policy. We're not going to do forcible vaccinations," said Army spokesman Capt. Scott Bertinetti. "We're not going to strap anybody down."

The Pentagon is proceeding with plans to vaccinate all 2.4 million active-duty, National Guard and Reserve service members against anthrax.

Anthrax, a livestock disease, is considered relatively easy to turn into a biological weapon and is nearly 100 percent fatal in the inhaled form likely to be used as a weapon.

Military leaders say the vaccine is the best protection against anthrax. But federal regulators have repeatedly reported problems at the only plant that makes the vaccine, and opponents question its safety and effectiveness.

At least 14 sailors and two airmen have been disciplined for refusing the vaccine this year.

And Army Pfc. Mathew Baker, 20, went absent without leave from Fort Stewart, Ga., on June 9.

At a news conference Aug. 4, Baker said he went AWOL after getting his first anthrax shot. He said he accepted the shot only after his company's first sergeant threatened to strap him down and inject him if he refused.

Army officials defended the first sergeant and said that right is contained in Army Regulation 600-20, "Army Command Policy," which sets forth the responsibilities of those in command of troops.

In a section titled "Medical care with or without the soldier's permission," the regulation states:

"The policy of authorizing forcible immunization is intended to protect the health and overall effectiveness of the command as well as the health of the soldier. Soldiers do not have the option as to whether they will be immunized except as prescribed" in a separate regulation. The exemptions include pregnancy, other medical conditions or religious objections.

As recently as last week, soldiers in California and Korea said commanders were citing the regulation and threatening to forcibly vaccinate anyone who refused.

"The reg is still out there -- it has not been rescinded yet," Bertinetti said. "The Army is developing a policy on vaccinations, specifically anthrax.

"Soldiers will face disciplinary action if they refuse."

Baker, who turned himself in to the Army on Aug. 5, was released to his parents' home in Springfield, Ohio. A discharge is pending.

The Navy gave general discharges last week to two sailors who refused to take the shots. Six others are in a holding status in Japan, pending discharge.

Pub Date: 9/11/98

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