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Sunday, February 13, 2000
 

GI thinks anthrax vaccine is responsible for illness

Many service members are putting their careers on the line, refusing to take the shot.

 

By J.S. Newton
Staff writer
Kevin Edwards started feeling sick about a month after his third anthrax shot.

 

The Army specialist, who was based in Korea when he fell ill in November 1998, thought it was just the flu. 

‘‘I really didn’t think much of it at the time,’’ Edwards said. ‘‘As it progressed, it just felt different than the flu.’’  

Edwards is a 1989 graduate of Terry Sanford High School. He is 28 years old. 

Nobody can say for certain what caused Edwards’ illness. 

All anybody can really agree on is that whatever he came down with was gruesome to look at -- and it almost killed him. 

Edwards thinks the anthrax vaccine made him ill. Hundreds of other service members are putting their military careers on the line, refusing the vaccine because they fear the same thing could happen to them. 

When Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina saw pictures of Edwards laid up in an Army hospital, he could barely keep his composure. 

‘‘I was horrified,’’ he said. ‘‘I have actually kept those photographs. But I don’t look at them.’’ 

Bleeding sores covered the soldier’s body. He looked as if he had been burned head to toe. 

In fact, the Army treated him like a burn victim. With a hole punched in his throat so he could breathe, he was flown from South Korea to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, so he could be treated by the Army’s best burn specialists. 

Army medical officials’ diagnoses ranged from an adverse reaction to anti-inflammatories to Steven Johnson Syndrome to staphylococcal scalded skin syndrome. Both syndromes are considered exfoliating skin disorders, which can cause skin lesions and scarring. 

Edwards, his family and his lawyer think his illness was caused by his anthrax vaccinations. 

‘‘The timetable seems irrefutable,’’ said Todd Conormon, a Fayetteville lawyer who specializes in military law and who is examining legal options for the soldier. ‘‘It seems to me more likely than not that this was a reaction to the anthrax (vaccine) -- particularly in the absence of any other logical cause. 
 

‘‘It would seem to me that no reasonable person could look at the sequence of events and conclude that Kevin’s reaction was anything but an adverse reaction to the anthrax vaccination. It would be disingenuous to suggest that there was some other cause.’’  

While some military doctors told Edwards his illness was not related to his anthrax vaccine, Edwards’ medical records indicate otherwise. 

In September of last year, the Army took the unusual step of exempting Edwards from his last three remaining anthrax shots. 

On Dec. 10, 1999, doctors at Brooke Army Medical Center, at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, filed an anthrax ‘‘adverse event report’’ with the Center for Disease Control to see if there was a ‘‘correlation’’ between the vaccine and Edwards’ illness. 

And they also filled out a follow-up ‘‘anthrax adverse event’’ form on Jan. 5. 

Army officials would not comment on Edwards’ case because it is ‘‘ongoing.’’  

‘‘It would be inappropriate to comment on the specifics of the case until the proper authoritative agencies have concluded their work,’’ said Craig Martin, a spokesman for Brooke Army Medical Center. 

Rep. Jones, who has written letters to the military on Edwards’ behalf, said the anthrax vaccine cannot be ruled out as a possible cause of Edwards’ illness. 

Mandated vaccine

The Department of Defense requires that its troops be given a series of shots to make them immune from anthrax exposure.

Through November, nearly 358,000 service members had received 1.2 million doses of the vaccine. 

Military officials say the vaccine is the safest way to protect U.S. forces against the deadly bacterial disease. 

Anti-terrorism experts say anthrax is a threat to U.S forces because it can be sprayed into the air, or delivered to the battlefield by armies using ballistic missiles. 

Between now and 2003, the vaccine will be given to the entire U.S. military force -- about 2.4 million people. 

‘‘Anthrax vaccine is safe and effective,’’ said Lt. Col. Gaston Randolph, who works with the Office of the Army Surgeon General. ‘‘There is a vast array of compelling scientific evidence to support this claim: 44 years of experience with this vaccine, 30 years of commercial use, and 12 studies involving the safety of the vaccine. Repeated safety studies conclude most side effects are comparable to other common vaccines.’’ 

As the vaccinations continue, a number of American service members have complained about being forced to take the shots. 

Jones, the North Carolina Third District congressman, is sponsoring a bill to make the program voluntary. Jones is a member of the House National Security Committee. His district includes Seymour Johnson Air Force Base. 

He said he has had dozens of calls from service members who have had reactions to the vaccines or don’t agree with the military’s anthrax policy. 

He has 32 co-sponsors for his bill. He says he is gaining sponsors by the week. 

Jones said there are too many questions surrounding the vaccine not to allow service members to decide on their own if they want to take it. 

He cites General Accounting Office reports that are critical of the manufacturing process of the vaccine. He cites the Army’s inability to rule out the anthrax vaccine as a cause for Edwards’ illnesses. 

‘‘You have to question, is this shot safe?’’ Jones said. ‘‘There is never going to be a shot that’s 100 percent safe. But there are too many questions.’’ 

Jones said the State Department, which often operates in places where there is a high threat of terrorism, has a voluntary anthrax program for its employees. 

Refusal consequences

Military members who refuse the shots face court-martial.

A number of service members, including Air Force Maj. Sonnie Bates, may lose their careers over the issue. Bates is the highest-ranking service member to face disciplinary action for his refusal to take the shots. He was recently featured on “60 Minutes.”  

‘‘It is a tragedy in this country when men and women in uniform would leave the military or be willing to be court-martialed over this shot,’’ Jones said.  

Dr. Peter Gilligan is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine. He is knowledgeable on anti-terrorism issues and works in two departments at UNC -- microbiology and immunology, and pathology and laboratory medicine. 

He said the anthrax vaccine is probably safe for most people who take it. 

‘‘I don’t think (Defense Secretary) Bill Cohen would take this vaccine if he thought it was dangerous,’’ he said. ‘‘But I understand the fear these folks have. We just don’t know enough about the vaccine.’’ 

He said delayed reactions -- Edwards’ illness began a month after his third shot -- are not the norm. 

‘‘I’m not going to say never,’’ he said. ‘‘But it is much more convincing if it is close by.’’ 

But he said he takes a ‘‘never-say-never’’ attitude on whether anthrax might be the cause of Edwards’ illnesses. 

Edwards and his father say the batch of vaccine he took could have been contaminated. Edwards’ lawyer is researching the issue. 

The General Accounting Office has reported manufacturing problems. It said the Food and Drug Administration found manufacturing deficiencies in a 1998 inspection. Those deficiencies included some “that might affect only one or a limited number of batches that were produced and those that could compromise the safety and efficacy of any or all batches.’’ 

The Army said there were no irregularities with Edwards’ batch. 

‘‘Lot 017, like all other lots released by the FDA, passed tests for potency, purity, sterility and general safety prior to release,’’ said Gaston Randolph of the Office of the Army Surgeon General. ‘‘No lot has been associated with more serious adverse events than any other lot.’’ 

Gilligan, the UNC microbiologist, said Edwards’ illnesses might have been caused by a virus. 

But he said the military should do more to ‘‘understand what the risks are and make the adverse reactions well known.’’ 

He said military experience should make officials more curious about potential long-term effects. 

‘‘No one ever thought, ‘Oh, Agent Orange causes cancer,’’’ he said. ‘‘The Army and military needs to be carefully studying this vaccine.’’  

Randolph said the Army has seen no long-term side effects associated with the vaccine.  

And more important, Randolph said, ‘‘We have not found any disease that is occurring more often among vaccinated troops than is expected among unvaccinated troops.’’  

Gilligan, the microbiologist, said he doesn’t want the big picture to get lost in this one case. 

‘‘The basic theory about vaccines -- as it has always been -- is we talk about it as the greater good,’’ he said. ‘‘Vaccines have saved countless number of lives in this world.’’ 

Gilligan said ‘‘there is always going to be a risk that somebody might have a negative reaction to the vaccine.’’ 

Soldier’s life on hold

Toney Edwards, Kevin Edwards’ father, has cancer that he said he got from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.

The pesticide was sprayed along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to defoliate the jungle canopy so U.S. aircraft pilots could better see their targets. 

Toney Edwards fears his son could have long-term health problems, like the ones he is experiencing from Agent Orange exposure. 

‘‘I can see the writing on the wall,’’ he said, tears welling in his eyes in an interview in Fayetteville recently. 

Toney Edwards works in Fayetteville for Mutual Realtors. 

His son is now out of the hospital. He works at Fort Sam Houston greeting people, answering phones and shredding paper. 

He is developing chronic eye problems, which require him to put drops in his eyes every few minutes. Scarring from his illness has damaged his eyes, he said. 

He wears sunglasses often. Soldiers in the dining hall often tell him to take them off because they don’t meet the military dress code. 

He is scared to take medicine, worried that his body will react as it did before.  

At one point in November 1998, Army officials called to tell his parents he might not make it. 

Open rashes and blisters were all over him. Internally, he said it felt as though he had swallowed hot coals. 

He can recall portions of the time he was sick: the flight home, the five trips he made to the clinic in two days seeking help from the pain, the medics who told him he was just dehydrated when he went in for help. 

‘‘A lot of it was a blur,’’ he said. ‘‘The pain was clear.’’ 

‘‘When I was going through it, I literally prayed for death,’’ he said. ‘‘I made my peace with God. It hurt that bad.’’ 

At Fort Sam Houston, his father and mother went to see him. 

His father grabbed his hand and squeezed. The son, who could not speak or see, squeezed back. 

‘‘They gave me a lot of comfort,’’ Kevin Edwards said. 

It made him want to live. A month later, he was able to be released. 

Now, more than a year and four months later, he said he has little to look forward to.  

Once, he entertained a passion for music. He majored in music at Fayetteville State University, where he played the trumpet. He is single and enjoys watching sports. 

At work, he used to be a soldier with a secret clearance and a job in a signal unit.  

It had meaning, he said. He loved his job. He loved the Army life. 

Now he fears he is losing his sight. 

The dryness in his eyes causes him constant discomfort. He can’t ride in cars with the windows down. 

Where once he looked forward to a successful military career, now he looks forward to treatment days. 

He said he understands that the military must do what it can to protect troops from anthrax. But he questions whether the military is going about it the right way. 

‘‘They should sit back and consider whether this should be mandatory and whether it is safe,’’ he said. ‘‘I do what I’m told. I did that. And this is what happened.’’ 

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