Did the Anthrax Vaccine Make Service Members Ill?
In the late 90’s, the United States military created an anthrax vaccine immunization program to protect service members from potential bioterror events upon deployment. However, the Food and Drug Administration had not yet tested the vaccine for use against inhalation anthrax. In the coming years, there have been reports of serious side effects that may have resulted from this vaccine. While the connection can be difficult to prove, military veterans may be eligible for compensation based on these long term side effects.
What Is Anthrax?
Anthrax is a bacterial disease that has been around for centuries. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this disease is caused by the bacteria bacillus anthracis. Anthrax can enter the body through the lungs, skin, or gastrointestinal system. These types of anthrax are called inhalation, cutaneous, and gastrointestinal anthrax respectively.
This disease may date as far back as ancient Egypt. In fact, it was thought to have caused the fifth plague during the time of Moses, killing horses, cattle, sheep, and oxen. Scholars even think that Homer described anthrax in his telling of the Iliad around 700 BC and that the deadly pathogen may have contributed to the fall of Rome.
Who Has a Risk of Exposure?
Anthrax most often spreads through contact with animals, animal products, or anthrax spores, so individuals like livestock workers, veterinarians, laboratory workers, and certain travelers are some of the only groups with a high risk of exposure. However, military personnel can also have an increased risk of exposure due to the risk of bioterror, according to the CDC. This most often applies to inhalation anthrax specifically.
Anthrax Vaccinations & The Military
Iraq researched Anthrax disease as a biological weapon in the early 80s, and it was assumed that Saddam Hussein had created bombs and missiles loaded with the Anthrax bacteria by 1991 in preparation for war. In preparation, the United States Department of Defense utilized an anthrax vaccine to protect military forces deploying to the middle east. However, the FDA had not yet tested this particular vaccine for use against inhaled anthrax.
Vaccinations were required by all forces, not just US troops. BioPort, now Emergent Biosolutions, was the exclusive manufacturer of BioThrax at the time, and this vaccine had proven to be effective against the bacterium that’s acquired through the skin, but not when the bacterium is inhaled. So, there was no Food and Drug Administration licensing for use against inhaled Anthrax. Therefore, all vaccinations given to military personnel were considered an “off-label” or experimental use of the vaccine.
Was The Anthrax Vaccine Safe?
Despite concerns about its safety, the Department of Defense mandated that all military personnel be vaccinated with BioThrax prior to deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan. They then expanded the anthrax vaccine immunization program to all US Military forces and DOD civilian contractors. With the expansion, BioPort Corp requested FDA approval for to include aerosol exposure approval, switching to intramuscular injections, and reducing the number of doses. In 1997, the DOD required that 2.5 million military personnel receive the Anthrax vaccine. By 1998, it was mandated for all civilian DOD personnel as well.
After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, two US Senator’s offices and news agencies along the east coast of the United States were sent letters that contained Anthrax spores. The powder form allowed the spores to float in the air. This means that unsuspecting bystanders and the intended targets could potentially breath in the bacteria. There were a total of 43 cases of inhalation of Anthrax from this attack, seven of whom were postal workers who processed the letters. Ultimately, five people died and it was estimated that more than 10,000 were at risk of possible exposure.
Mandatory Anthrax Vaccine
Due to questions about the contents and safety of the vaccine; in October 2004, US District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ruled that it was illegal for the federal government to mandate anthrax vaccinations. Judge Sullivan banned the Pentagon from forcing military personnel serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea, and part of Asia and Africa to get the anthrax shots without their prior consent. The military could not require the vaccine until the FDA approved it for the specific use of inhaled anthrax. However, those who refused quickly found themselves, for various other reasons, no longer in military service.
One of the ingredients found in BioThrax was squalene, a banned additive found in about 95% of Tulane University’s studies of veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome. Squalene is a tool used to boost the body’s immune system against certain diseases and was not approved for internal human use other than in highly controlled experiments.
Anthrax Vaccine Side Effects & Adverse Reactions
Most vaccines carry some risk of adverse effects like allergic reactions and pain at the injection site. However, there may be evidence of more severe and widespread reactions among service members who were vaccinated under the program discussed above.
In 2002, the General Accounting Office (GAO) conducted a study on adverse reactions of those who received anthrax vaccines in response to a large number of pilots leaving ranks. The most common reported reactions that lasted longer than 7 days were limited motion/pain in the arm, extreme fatigue, joint pain, and memory loss. Some debilitating issues that have been reported to Walter Reed Hospital include muscle and joint weakness, chronic fatigue, intense migraines, cognitive problems, and even some severe diseases such as multiple sclerosis and vision loss.
There are anecdotal reports on the internet of military troops who have experienced adverse events like slurred speech, brain damage, neurological problems tremors, memory lapses, seizures, weight loss, renal failure, and other conditions that affect the nervous, cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, skin, digestive, and respiratory systems. However, there are no peer-reviewed studies supporting long-lasting, debilitating effects of Anthrax.
There is currently an Army memo being circulated-although the validity of the contents is unclear-stating that the soldiers at Ft. Campbell and Ft. Drum were given “bad” batches of the vaccine between 2001 and 2007 when deploying to OIF and OIE.
Can You Make a Claim for Anthrax Vaccine Side Effects?
When claiming that a condition is service-related due to the anthrax vaccine, or any in-service vaccine, one must be able to rule out all other possibilities. One former military service member was able to get genetic testing to show her brain disorder was not genetic and therefore more likely than not due to the anthrax vaccine. However, it can be difficult and expensive to obtain proof. Being able to show reactivity within a short period of time after vaccination and having a strong timeline is helpful. Legal and medical experts can assist in working your claim if you feel that a vaccine has caused a disabling condition.