Mandatory anthrax shots stir
health fears, sap morale
Op/Ed -     Dec 12, 2003

Ohio National Guardsman Kurt Hickman expected to head to Iraq or Afghanistan after getting a call-up notice days before Thanksgiving. Instead, his more likely destination is a jail cell. Hickman, 20, faces trial Saturday for refusing a mandatory anthrax vaccine he fears isn't safe. More than 500 other soldiers already have received punishments ranging from demotions to court-martials for refusing required anthrax shots.

The Pentagon says vaccines are essential to protect soldiers' health - particularly from anthrax in Iraq, which developed biological agents. But that doesn't trump the Defense Department's equal obligation to investigate and weigh potential problems.

Instead, it clings to its policy of mandatory vaccinations, even as other countries are moving toward voluntary programs with successful results. The dug-in U.S. position forces concerned soldiers to choose between possibly endangering their health and ending their military service at a time when troop strength already is stretched.

Concerns fall into two categories:

Safety. According to a 2002 survey by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, 84% of the Air Force Reserve and National Guard troops who received anthrax vaccines since they became mandatory in 1998 had reactions. They included difficulty breathing, muscle aches, headaches and dizziness.

The Pentagon acknowledges that the death of reservist Rachel Lacy, 22, last April may have resulted from an anthrax vaccine. Veterans' groups; the National Vaccine Information Center, a public awareness group; and some members of Congress are calling for better research to determine whether more than 10 other deaths and hundreds of illnesses, from pneumonia to blood clots, may be linked to the vaccines.

Morale. The GAO said concern about mandatory anthrax shots was the main reason cited by two thirds of pilots and crew who left Air Force guard and reserve units from 1998 to 2000. After then vaccines were curtailed for two years because of shortages. Yet the Pentagon increasingly relies on these forces to relieve regular troops. Recruiters fear long tours of duty may drive many reservists away; mandatory shots are an added worry. The Army Reserve already missed a retention goal by 6.7% this year.

The Pentagon insists its vaccinations are safe. And for most people, they are.

But they aren't risk-free. Last year, the Food and Drug Administration warned that 5% to 35% of those who get shots could experience any of 40 side effects. About 6% of reactions can cause death, hospitalization or permanent disability.

Those risks, combined with the U.S. military's failure to find any biological weapons in Iraq so far, make a strong argument for a moratorium on mandatory vaccines - at least while two safer anthrax vaccines are being developed.

Britain, with the most troops in Iraq after the U.S., made the anthrax vaccine voluntary this year. Since then, more than half of its soldiers have refused the shots. Australia, which also has troops in Iraq, has a voluntary anthrax vaccination policy as well.

By giving soldiers a choice about receiving vaccines as more studies on the health hazards are conducted, the Pentagon could ensure that soldiers like Hickman serve time where they're needed most.