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All U.S. troops to get anthrax vaccine

Gas Mask
Gas mask worn during the Gulf War
 

Pentagon cites danger of germ warfare

December 15, 1997
Web posted at: 3:45 p.m. EST (2045 GMT)

In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Concerned about the possibility of germ warfare at home and overseas, the Pentagon has ordered that all 1.4 million active duty men and women in the U.S. military be vaccinated against anthrax. The biological agent can be fatal even in microscopic amounts.

About 1 million reservists and "mission essential" civilian defense employees will also receive the vaccinations.

The inoculations, which involve six shots taken over 18 months, will cost about $130 million, senior Pentagon officials said. It is the first military-wide program to vaccinate for a germ warfare agent.

troops
Gulf War troops
 

The move comes amid the confrontation with Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the United Nations' efforts to discover whether he is hiding any weapons of mass destruction.

Terrorist bombings aimed at U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia, controversy over a possible Gulf War syndrome and fears that enemies such as Iraq and North Korea might use biological weapons prompted the Pentagon initiative, officials said.

Health effects of vaccine weighed

While inoculations for people in uniform are mandatory, there will be exemptions for some, such as pregnant women, for whom the anthrax inoculation could be dangerous.

One Pentagon official stressed that the vaccine to be used was not "live," and thus would not itself pose a potential danger to the troops. "The side effects would include perhaps in some instances feeling like you have a mild case of flu," the official said.

The decision to inoculate all U.S. troops had been made informally last year but was delayed, officials said, as the Pentagon debated:

  • The cost of covering all uniformed military personnel, even those unlikely to go into battle.
  • What procedure could be set up to monitor those who are inoculated.
  • Whether inoculations during the Gulf War contributed to veterans' ailments, including the mysterious Gulf War Syndrome.

Only about 150,000 of the more than 500,000 U.S. troops in the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991 received anthrax inoculations due to a vaccine shortage.

No link between the vaccine and Gulf War illnesses has been established. The vaccine is licensed by the Food and Drug Administration and has been in use since 1970.

The most lethal of biological agents

Anthrax, an infectious disease that normally afflicts animals, especially cattle and sheep, is considered the most lethal of biological agents by the U.S. government.

Anthrax spores are stable and remain viable in water and soil for years. Of greater importance to the Pentagon, anthrax can easily be put into a dry powder form that can be placed in artillery shells and bombs for long periods.

Inhaling the spores can cause death within a week unless the victim has been vaccinated.

Iraq, Russia and as many as 10 other countries are believed to have the capability to use anthrax in weapons.

Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.
 
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