Air Force pilots tell of illness after required anthrax vaccine

Health fears are leading to resignations, panel told

July 22, 1999|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Air Force Capt. Michelle Piel says she lives with headaches and an aching fatigue while her colleague Capt. Jon Richter complains that he rises each day with painful joints that cause him to limp during his first waking hour.

The two C-5 Galaxy cargo plane pilots at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware told Congress yesterday that their health problems started soon after they took the Pentagon's mandatory anthrax vaccine, designed to guard all 2.4 million active and reserve soldiers against the lethal biological agent.

And while doctors have not linked the vaccine to their conditions, the two pilots say colleagues are becoming sick, although some of them are failing to report illnesses, fearing reprisals from superiors or being grounded from flying.

"There's no way I can prove the anthrax vaccine caused any of this," Piel told the national security panel of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee. "All I can tell you is I became uncharacteristically ill after I started taking the anthrax shots," said the Stevensville, Md., resident.

Pentagon officials said the vaccine is safe and effective, approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration and in use for nearly 30 years.

There have been just 174 "adverse events" from the vaccination of some 300,000 service members, they said, and only eight required hospitalization. This is consistent with such events after other vaccines are administered. An event would become a "reaction" only if it were positively linked to the vaccine.

But the General Accounting Office, Congress' watchdog arm, said the numbers are likely underreported, since the Pentagon doesn't closely monitor each soldier vaccinated, and instead waits for a service member or health care worker to report an adverse event. The GAO also noted that women are reporting twice the rate of adverse reactions than men.

Lt. Richard J. Rovet, an official with the Dover base's Flight Medicine Clinic, said there are 35 unexplained medical conditions out of 1,100 vaccinated service members at the base. But he estimated the number could triple if all those with problems came forward.

Maj. Gen. Robert Claypool, deputy assistant secretary of defense for health operations policy, and other officials said the Pentagon is trying to address concerns that there has been no long-term study of the vaccine's effects. A panel of military and civilian experts is meeting this month to begin such a study.

For Richter, 36, an Annapolis resident with 12 years experience in both the Air Force and the Navy, and other soldiers, a study has come too late. There is "an air of fear and distrust" as a result of the vaccine, he said. Many want the anthrax program stopped or at least made voluntary.

Richter said 60 percent of his reserve squadron is quitting rather than taking the vaccine shots. He will be among them, even though he was recently approved for promotion to major.

"Morale is at an all-time low," he said. "Those in command seemed to have shrugged their shoulders at the numbers of people leaving military service with the attitude that an order was given and should be carried out."

Military officials say the numbers of those resigning rather than taking the shots is low and is having no effect on operations. Still, scores of Guard and Reserve pilots from units in at least six other states are leaving over the vaccine, which Defense Secretary William S. Cohen expects to give to all troops by 2004.

Some House members, concerned by the resignations and questions raised by service members, introduced legislation this week to stop the vaccine program until a study by the National Institutes of Health can confirm it is safe and effective.

Pub Date: 7/22/99

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