Feared anthrax vaccine is suddenly in demand

Reality of bioterrorism makes other concerns secondary, experts say

War On Terrorism

Anthrax Scare

November 08, 2001|By Jonathan Bor | Jonathan Bor,SUN STAFF

It was a pariah among vaccines. More than 100 U.S. soldiers, hearing reports of side effects ranging from migraines to memory loss, were court-martialed after refusing to take it. Hundreds more resigned rather than be inoculated.

Now, as the nation reels from a string of anthrax attacks, the decade-long controversy over the safety of anthrax vaccine has been drowned out by a discussion of how fast people can get it.

Laboratory workers testing suspicious powders and cultures want it. So do some postal workers, rattled by the knowledge that colleagues have contracted the disease from mail or equipment.

What's changed, say experts, is the reality of bioterrorism. The anthrax cases that began last month in Florida and spread to Washington, New Jersey and New York have raised the clamor for protection - and, perhaps, tolerance for a less than perfect vaccine.

"Before, there was no perceived risk of anthrax exposure," said Dr. Neal Halsey, who runs a vaccine safety program at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "Now, there is a very real perceived risk, and people have died from anthrax."

Halsey said no vaccine is without risk, but he believes this one poses only a remote risk of serious side effects.

For now, the government has a meager reserve of anthrax vaccine.

Production has been stalled for two years as the lone manufacturer, Bioport Corp. of Lansing, Mich., struggles to fix quality control problems cited by the Food and Drug Administration. The agency is due to inspect the facility within the next two weeks and could allow production to resume by Thanksgiving, said Health and Human Sevices Secretary Tommy G. Thompson.

In the meantime, HHS is negotiating with the military to divert vaccine to 800 laboratory technicians who process suspected anthrax samples and perhaps to postal employees working on high-speed sorting machines.

Dr. Joseph M. Joseph, director of the Maryland state laboratory, has requested anthrax vaccine for 17 employees. Though they wear safety garments and work under protective hoods, Joseph said, the workers deserve an extra measure of protection.

He said he is satisfied by studies that show only a slight chance of severe side effects. He said his workers are concerned only with the frequency of injections required to maintain immunity - six shots over an 18-month period, followed by yearly boosters.

Controversy over the vaccine erupted in the 1990s when soldiers who developed the mysterious and still undefined gulf war syndrome blamed their symptoms on the anthrax vaccine.

Routine vaccination was halted after the war but resumed in 1998 when the Defense Department required the shots of all service members. So far, 2.1 million doses have been administered to 522,000 people.

Some who received the shots complained of dizzy spells, joint pain, headache, fevers and fatigue. Hundreds who refused to take the vaccine were discharged or allowed to resign their posts.

Randi Allaire, a former staff sergeant with the Michigan Air National Guard, said she experienced weeks of fatigue, stomach cramps and shortness of breath after receiving her fourth shot in 1999.

When she refused further shots, Allaire was not only discharged from the reserves but also lost her full-time job as a civilian technician at a Michigan base. She says she still suffers from short-term memory loss, fatigue and insomnia.

"I won't tell anybody to take it or not to take it," said Allaire, 28, who lives in Lansing and now works with troubled youth. "It's their choice. But if someone came and blew spores in my face, I still wouldn't take it."

Last month, the sister of an Army cook who hemorrhaged and died three months after her sixth injection filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Bioport. Army Spc. Sandra Larson died last year at an Army hospital in Fort Lewis, Wash.

The military has brushed off the complaints as unfounded, pointing to studies that have shown few severe side effects and no deaths that can be linked to the vaccine.

A study by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, showed that up to 30 percent of recipients develop a small, painful sore around the injection site. Up to 3 percent get a larger sore. About six out of every 1,000 people develop a fever that could last overnight or as much as a few days.

Dr. James Campbell, a vaccine researcher at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the rate of mild reactions is "on the high end" but the more serious effects are well in line with modern vaccines.

Like Halsey, Campbell believes that some service members blamed the vaccine for illnesses that just happened to develop after they were immunized.

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