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Gulf War Vets Home Page

Effects of Anthrax vaccine downplayed

Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2005

NEWPORT NEWS, VA The Pentagon never told Congress about more than 20,000 hospitalizations involving troops who took the anthrax vaccine from 1998 through 2000, despite repeated promises that such cases would be publicly disclosed. Instead, generals and Defense Department officials claimed that fewer than 100 people were hospitalized or became seriously ill after receiving the shot, according to an investigation by the Daily Press of Newport News.

Written policies required that public reports be filed for hospitalizations, serious illnesses and cases where someone missed 24 hours or more of duty. But only a few of the cases were actually reported; the rest were withheld from Congress and the public, according to records obtained by the Daily Press. Critics of the vaccine, veterans' advocates and congressional staffers say the Pentagon's deliberate low-balling of hospitalizations helped persuade Congress and the public that the vaccine was safe.

Withholding the full record contributed to a shorter list of government-recognized side effects for the drug, which gave patients and physicians a false idea of what might constitute a vaccine-related illness or problem. Repeated evidence of the same adverse side effect after a vaccination is one of the most telling signs of a systematic problem, vaccine safety experts say.

The newspaper found three cases of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), known as Lou Gehrig's disease, that the military hadn't reported. The disease destroys muscles and nerves, is always fatal, and rarely hits people younger than 45. One of the three cases involves Navy Capt. Denis Army of Virginia Beach, who died in 2000 after developing symptoms less than a week after his first anthrax vaccination.

His widow filed the first public acknowledgement of his death and its connection to the vaccine after talking to a Daily Press reporter and learning that she could file a report with the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS).

Col. John Grabenstein, director of the military's vaccine agency, said no one from the military intentionally misled Congress or the public. The 20,765 hospitalizations merely followed vaccinations in time, without documented proof of a cause-and-effect relationship, he claimed. However, the data that the Daily Press used to document the underreporting came from an unpublished report that Grabenstein supplied in response to its request.

Quarterly analysis of the vaccine's effects ended just as the nation's only manufacturer, BioPort, Inc. regained its license in 2002, after a 1998 shutdown by federal inspectors who found safety and other problems. The decision to discontinue the quarterly monitoring end systematic long-term studies of the health of those who have taken the drug, the newspaper notes. Most studies that the Pentagon cites as support for the vaccine's safety involve monitoring that lasted no longer than a few months.

After the quarterly reviews stopped, more than a million troops were forced to take the vaccine until a federal judge ruled last year that the drug had never been adequately licensed for protection against anthrax use in warfare. He ordered the military to make vaccination voluntary. The Pentagon is appealing that ruling. A decision is expected by February.