WASHINGTON—The Pentagon announced Monday that it plans to restart mandatory anthrax vaccination shots for some military personnel, Defense Department civilians and contractors after determining that too few people were voluntarily receiving the vaccination.
A lawyer for a group of soldiers that successfully challenged the Pentagon's anthrax vaccination program three years ago said he will take the issue up again in court.
Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said mandatory vaccinations are expected to resume within the next 30 to 60 days and will be limited primarily to troops who are involved in homeland bio-terrorism defense and those assigned to the Middle East and Korea.
He said only about 50 percent of troops were volunteering to take the shots, a figure he said "jeopardized unit effectiveness and degraded military readiness."
"The threat environment and the unpredictable nature of terrorism make it necessary to include biological warfare defense as part of our force protection measures," Winkenwerder said during a conference call with reporters.
More than 1.1 million active and reserve military personnel and Defense Department civilians were inoculated with the anthrax vaccine before a judge ordered a ban in 2003.
Mark Zaid, the Washington attorney who previously had challenged the program, called the resumption of mandatory vaccinations "a poorly conceived public relations campaign."
"It is not a program designed for the benefit of the troops," Zaid said. "It is an unnecessary, unproven and potentially unsafe vaccine."
The vaccine is manufactured by Emergent BioSolutions, a pharmaceutical company based in Gaithersburg, Md. Each dose costs $24.78, according to Terry Jones, a spokesman for the Pentagon's Office of Health Affairs.
Winkenwerder said the basis of the Pentagon's decision was a "final rule" issued last December by the Food and Drug Administration that declared anthrax vaccine safe and effective against all types of exposure, including inhalation.
Anthrax is a disease that occurs naturally in cattle and other herd animals. It can be transmitted to humans if they are exposed to infected animals or tissues. Skin contact can be successfully treated, but inhalation of anthrax bacteria is often fatal.
A number of countries, including the United States, have experimented with anthrax as a biological weapon. Five years ago, five people died and at least 17 others fell ill after receiving mail tainted with anthrax spores. There have been no arrests in that case.
The FDA approved a vaccine for anthrax in 1970, primarily for use by veterinarians and other animal workers.
The Pentagon started inoculating troops with anthrax vaccine in 1998, over concerns about the possibility of a biological weapons attack in the Middle East and North Korea.
But the controversial program was plagued with problems almost from the start. Vaccine shortages almost halted inoculations in 2001 and 2002. Hundreds of troops were kicked out of the military for refusing the shots.
Federal District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ordered the program halted in December 2003 after several soldiers filed a lawsuit citing safety concerns. In December 2004, Congress passed a law authorizing the use of unapproved drugs for military emergencies, and Sullivan ruled in April 2005 that the Pentagon could resume shots, but only to troops who volunteered for them.
Last December, the FDA issued its "final rule" authorizing the anthrax vaccine as safe and effective. "In our view, that has definitively settled the question," Winkenwerder said.
He said the Pentagon also has reviewed its other inoculation programs and will continue to administer smallpox vaccinations to troops. The military routinely administered smallpox vaccines to new recruits until the early 1990s, but discontinued the practice until the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
There are currently about 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 20,000 or so elsewhere in the Middle East. There are about 40,000 U.S. troops in Korea.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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