Military split over anthrax shots

Counterpoint: Vaccine is safe

January 30, 2000|By Charles L. Cragin

IN AN EFFORT to protect our military personnel from the very real and growing threat of weapons that employ the deadly germ agent anthrax, the Department of Defense has begun immunizing America's military forces with the anthrax vaccine. Over the next seven years, 1.4 million active duty personnel and some 900,000 members of our Reserve forces will be immunized. Today, at least 10 countries, including Iraq and North Korea, have -- or are attempting to acquire or produce -- these deadly, insidious weapons. Within the realm of germ warfare, anthrax is the weapon of choice.

For those who inhale anthrax but have not been vaccinated or treated, death is the ultimate and predictable outcome. For thc unvaccinated, the onset of clinical symptoms means that most will die, despite the most heroic, state-of-the-art, post-exposure medical intervention and treatment. But much of this death can be prevented by vaccination --in fact, the anthrax vaccine provides our men and women in uniform with their best chance of survival.

The anthrax vaccine is as safe as most common vaccines. It has had an excellent safety record since it was licensed and approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1970. Before Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen authorized the use of a single dose, he ordered supplemental testing of the vaccine, further ensuring its safety.

Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have taken all six anthrax shots as required by the FDA protocol. I have taken four shots and will continue as scheduled with the remainder of the shots, including an annual booster. Numerous other senior military and civilian leaders also are taking the shots.

What we are doing today is no different from what we have always tried to do: We are taking prudent measures to protect the armed forces. We routinely vaccinate military personnel against many diseases, including tetanus, diphtheria, influenza, hepatitis A, measles, mumps, rubella, polio and yellow fever. Like the anthrax vaccine, the vaccinations for these diseases are FDA-approved and effective. The anthrax vaccine will protect our men and women in uniform from another disease -- a disease that will kill, a disease that can be used as a weapon.

While it is true that some service members have concerns about the anthrax protection program, we are working tirelessly to alleviate those concerns through an intensive educational and leadership outreach effort. The vast majority of those requiring vaccination have taken the anthrax shots.

If we were to deny our military personnel protection from anthrax, we would be denying them the protection they need to undertake the critical missions they are called on to perform. Just as we would not deny them helmets and flak jackets, we cannot send them into battle without protection from anthrax. In short, we have an obligation to give our personnel the best protection available from all anticipated threats -- anthrax is one of those threats; and the vaccine offers safe and effective protection.

Charles L. Cragin is Princi-pal Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.

About the issue

Last week, the commanding general of the Maryland Air National Guard rescinded a letter to about 40 Guard pilots that warned them they had to agree to take the Pentagon's anthrax vaccine or face paying back about $30,000 for training on new aircraft next spring.

The letter was pulled after some pilots described it as "blackmail." Nationwide hundreds of citizen-soldier pilots have resigned rather than take the vaccine, which they believe is unsafe, and dozens of active-duty troops face disciplinary action for refusing the shots.

All 2.4 million reserve and active duty military personnel have been ordered to take the vaccine by 2004.

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