Mandatory Anthrax Shots Urged
By Catherine Strong
Associated Press Writer
Thursday, Sept. 30, 1999; 5:45 p.m. EDT WASHINGTON Military commanders told Congress on Thursday the mandatory program to inoculate soldiers with the anthrax vaccine is essential because hostile nations have developed weapons using the biological warfare agent.
Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre and Gen. Anthony Zinni, in charge of U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, said troops must be vaccinated or they would die if exposed to the biological weapon.
"It would be almost impossible for us to conduct our war plans ... if this were to be used on the battlefield," Zinni testified before the House Armed Services Committee's personnel panel. "The level of casualties would be significant."
Hamre said 10 countries have taken steps to put anthrax in bombs or missiles, but he named only Iraq, saying the military received evidence in 1997 that Iraq had weapons containing anthrax: "We have got absolute, incontrovertible evidence we have this threat."
"We have to conclude that anyone in General Zinni's field of operations could face an anthrax threat," Hamre said.
Defense Secretary William Cohen last year ordered all 2.4 million active duty and reserve troops to get shots of the anthrax vaccine as protection against biological warfare. Some 340,000 service members have been immunized so far.
About 200 to 300 troops have refused to take the shots because of questions about the vaccine's safety and efficacy, Pentagon officials say.
Defense officials have said repeatedly the vaccine is safe and effective. But it has come under increasing scrutiny from congressional lawmakers as soldiers, including pilots in the National Guard and reserves, have expressed concerns with taking the six-shot regimen and some have said they would resign. Complaints include fevers, muscle pain, soreness and dizziness.
Lt. Gen. Ronald Blanck, the Army's surgeon general, said there have been 72 reports of adverse effects from the shots serious enough for soldiers to be hospitalized or take a sick day. Fifty-five were verified as related to the anthrax vaccine, he said, which compares favorably with reaction rates from other vaccines. There have been no deaths.
Anthrax has never been used in combat, but the Pentagon fears Iraq, North Korea and other countries, which they say are classified or terrorist groups might try. Anthrax is a naturally occurring bacteria found in domesticated animals; it can be produced as dry spores that, when inhaled, cause death within a few days.
"If we are attacked with this agent and we have a force that's vaccinated, our soldiers, sailors and marines will survive," Blanck said. Without it, he said, soldiers "will inevitably die."
Zinni also said the inoculations must be mandatory because there would be a devastating impact on morale if some soldiers with important missions duties were caught unprepared.
Anthrax is easily and cheaply converted into a weapon and a tiny amount could "jeopardize our forces in a place like Kuwait," Zinni said.
For instance, one Iraqi airplane with a single spray tank full of anthrax spores "could endanger the entire population of Kuwait," he said. "They have the ability within minutes to affect Kuwait and northern Saudi Arabia."
Several lawmakers criticized military leaders for failing keep close track of the number of refusals to take the vaccinations.
But Hamre said he was reluctant to count refusals through a central tracking system because it would undermine command authority.
© Copyright 1999 The Associated Press