- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006


The Pentagon said yesterday that it will once again begin requiring anthrax vaccinations for troops heading into dangerous regions, reinstating a program that has been challenged repeatedly over health risks.

Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said the vaccinations will begin in 30 to 60 days, and will involve troops, civilian Defense Department personnel and contractors serving in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Korean Peninsula.

“This is a safe and effective vaccine,” Dr. Winkenwerder said in a conference call with reporters. He said that the move to reinstate the vaccine program does not suggest there is any new or elevated threat but that the possibility of an anthrax attack is “very real, and it has not gone away.”

Opponents of the program promised a fresh challenge. Mark S. Zaid, one of the lawyers who previously sued to stop the mandatory program, said he would file a lawsuit “as soon as needles start going into arms.” Other groups that have opposed the program also criticized the new requirements.

“This is a vaccine that is unproven, unnecessary and has the potential to jeopardize the health of a service member where little benefit will be derived,” Mr. Zaid said. “It has always been a public-relations program and nothing more.”

He questioned why the Pentagon is inoculating troops in the Middle East when the 2001 anthrax attacks, which left five persons dead and sickened 17, occurred in the United States.

Dr. Winkenwerder said that the vaccine has been thoroughly reviewed by the federal Food and Drug Administration and several independent groups, and that it has been deemed safe.

He said anyone who refused the vaccine would be reminded of its importance and safety. Then, if needed, their supervisor would get involved and the matter would be resolved “like any other refusal to follow a lawful order.”

He said that although significant numbers of troops refused the vaccine in 1998 and 1999, few have objected to taking it since then. About 10 people were discharged for refusing the vaccine in 2004, but he said he did not know how many may have refused and gotten other punishments.

The drug has been at the center of a multiyear lawsuit that began when six members of the military challenged the program.

Since 1998, at least 1.2 million troops have been vaccinated against anthrax in six-shot regimens. Hundreds of service members had been punished or discharged for refusing the vaccination until U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in December 2004 suspended the inoculation program after he found fault in the FDA’s process for approving the drug.

Several months later, Judge Sullivan said the Pentagon could resume vaccinations on a voluntary basis. Then, in December, the FDA reaffirmed its finding that the vaccine was safe and effective.

Dr. Winkenwerder said enough vaccine doses exist to inoculate the several hundred thousand troops who will be deploying to Iraq, Afghanistan and other dangerous locations.

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