Anthrax is one of the deadliest known diseases, and the “No. 1 agent we need to protect against,” according to Dr. Phillip Russell, former commander of the Army’s Medical Research and Development Command. It is nearly always fatal, depending on the amount of bacteria inhaled. Iraq and at least nine other nations have anthrax weapons.
But to hear some tell it, it’s the anthrax vaccination soldiers need protection against.
Active duty, Reserve, and National Guard service personnel across the nation are refusing the Defense Department order that all members of the armed forces receive the series of six shots that vaccinate against anthrax.
In a single day last year, nine A-10 “Warthog” pilots with the Connecticut Air National Guard resigned rather than take the vaccine. According to the Pentagon, there have been about 350 vaccine refusers so far. It’s hardly the “mutiny” some have labeled it, but it’s 350 too many.
Why the refusals? Blame it on a mixture of old-fashioned mass paranoia, conspiracy theorists, media sensationalism, congressional demagogues, and a powerful new weapon of mass disinformation, the Internet.
Thus one web site provides “shocking information of health for those at Dover Air Force Base,” claiming more than 100 airmen have been affected. Allegedly these people have an almost endless symptom list: ringing ears, photosensitivity, joint pains, seizures, vertigo, miscarriage, insomnia, migraines, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, swollen testicles, cramps, memory loss, burning (no mention of where), blurry vision, coughing, wheezing, heart disease, stroke, “pressure in right ear,” cold sweats, weight loss, vomiting, pain in toe of left foot and bleeding gums.
The stranger symptoms include “lesions that turned into moles all over the body,” “dry ear canals,” “grayouts,” “tightness in hands and wrists” and “pain in both toes.” Both?
It’s true that more than 25 symptoms were recorded, says Dr. Tom Luna, who supervises the Dover vaccination program. But, he told me, the airmen who had already heard horror stories were instructed to report anything they felt might be related to the vaccine.
And the only common symptom, Dr. Luna says, was “local reactions such as sore arm, redness, swelling at injection site.” As with Gulf war syndrome (GWS), to which more than 120 different symptoms have been ascribed, it is the lack of commonality that points to mass hysteria rather than organic illness.
The FDA approved the anthrax vaccine in 1970, and as of Feb. 29 of this year some 409,000 people had been vaccinated with a total of more than 1.5 million doses. Since late 1990 a government-sponsored panel has tracked adverse reactions to all U.S.-licensed vaccines, encouraging “all reporting of any clinically significant adverse event occurring after the administration of any vaccine” [emphasis in original].
Despite such a wide definition of “adverse event,” only 620 were reported, with the vast majority coming after the negative publicity began. Of those, 26 people were hospitalized, and only six cases were attributed to the vaccine all of which were allergic inflammations at the injection site. “We are confident that the anthrax vaccine is safe and effective,” says FDA spokesman Kathryn Zoon.
One crucial bit of misinformation was a June 1999 San Diego Union-Tribune article that was nationally syndicated. It stated: “The vaccine, according to a memo signed by [Army Secretary Louis] Caldera, ‘involves unusually hazardous risks associated with the potential for adverse reactions in some recipients.’ “
In a CNBC interview, former CIA analyst and anti-vaccine activist Patrick Eddington spun Mr. Caldera’s letter thus: “The secretary of the Army acknowledges in this memo that this vaccine does pose some very, very serious potential risks to anybody who’s thinking about taking it.”
In fact, the memo was merely a standard letter of indemnification. The sentence in question began, “The obligation assumed by [vaccine maker] MBPI under this contract involves unusually hazardous risks.” The reference to risk applied not to vaccine recipients, but to the manufacturer. Pentagon spokesmen have taken great pains to point this out, yet the story lives on, in cyberspace and in print.
If the anthrax angst sounds awfully similar to that over GWS, it should. Certainly the cast of characters strongly overlaps. Mr. Eddington wrote a book about the alleged GWS coverup. Rep. Chris Shays. Connecticut Republican, held 14 hearings on the supposed syndrome, inviting only veterans with the wildest stories to testify. He’s done likewise with five hearings on anthrax vaccinations and recently released a report calling for a moratorium on using the vaccine.
Lt. Col. Raymond Handy, who quit the Air Force Reserve rather than take the vaccine, claims the Pentagon’s vaccine policy “has a cancerous influence on morale and readiness.” In truth, it’s the rumormongering and unsupportable accusations from the media, a few vociferous congressmen and “experts” who are anything but that are eroding morale and readiness.
The anthrax-vaccine hysteria is merely the latest manifestation of the quest for a “risk-free society” in which we expect our chance of illness, injury, and even death to be zero. If we do fall ill, somebody must be to blame. This mentality is all the more bizarre when it concerns people who volunteered to risk death in the defense of their country.
The real threat here to U.S. military preparedness is no vaccine; it’s caving in to this mentality. We’ve already been far too craven in placating GWS activists. If we surrender to the anthrax-vaccine hysteria, the military may find itself unable to defend the nation at all.
Michael Fumento is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, where he specializes in health and science issues.