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Aviation electrician’s mate 2nd class Brian Royal’s first reaction when he heard the Defense Department will resume its mandatory anthrax vaccination program this month was to contact an attorney.
That decision came in spite of a December Food and Drug Administration ruling that the vaccine is safe and effective against all forms of anthrax.
His family, he said, has a strong history of following orders — and paying for their loyalty later.
“My father was a Vietnam veteran,” Royal e-mailed from Afghanistan. “He’s suffering from personality disorders, and nervous and endocrine system damage that were likely a result of his exposure to Agent Orange. DoD claimed it was a safe and effective defoliant.”
The history goes back further.
“My grandfather was present as an Army soldier for a Nevada nuclear test strike,” he said. “He was marched into ground zero immediately following the strike. He’s dying from multiple myeloma.”
Multiple myeloma is an incurable plasma cancer that develops in the bone marrow.
“I feel like I’m following in their footsteps,” Royal said. “That scares me.”
Still, though a part of the John Doe et al v. Donald Rumsfeld class-action suit, which asks that the program be voluntary, Royal intends to continue the family history of following orders.
“I believe it to be an unacceptable risk,” he said. “On the other hand, I’m not planning to defy a direct order by my superiors.”
William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, approved the service implementation plans from each branch Feb. 8. After those plans are in place, each branch will begin the vaccinations, a Defense Department spokesman said.
The shots will be mandatory for everyone assigned to U.S. Central Command, including Iraq or Afghanistan, as well as forces in Korea.
The vaccinations have been controversial because, according to the FDA, 21 people have died after the vaccine — though none of those cases shows a direct cause-and-effect reaction to the vaccine. The FDA also tracked 4,279 reports of health problems from the vaccine from July 1990 to March 2005, with 390 listed as “serious.”
But Defense Department officials say the vaccine is worthwhile because five people died from anthrax when 22 envelopes went out in the U.S. mail system in 2001.
Anthrax is usually found in cattle, which can then transfer the disease to humans. If the disease is passed by touch, it starts with a big, itchy boil with a black center where the skin is dying. A person infected with the disease by breathing it may feel as if he has a cold, but may quickly develop breathing problems and go into shock. And a person who ingests the bacteria will feel nauseated, lose his appetite, vomit, have a fever, vomit blood and suffer severe diarrhea. Weaponized anthrax is inhaled.
The disease can be treated with antibiotics, but they are only effective if begun early, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
And the FDA just granted fast-track status to the BioThrax anthrax vaccine as a post-exposure treatment in conjunction with antibiotics. That means the development and review of the drug will be expedited, potentially killing the need to vaccinate troops. Defense Department officials had not responded as of Friday to questions about a new treatment that would cause them to rethink the mandatory vaccine policy.
A Defense Department spokesman said the services will keep their service members informed about the vaccine, as well as address any medical concerns. People can find out more about adverse reactions at http://www.anthrax.osd.mil