Gulf War Syndrome, Anthrax Vaccine, Squalene: What Made Service Members Ill?
Gulf War Syndrome, or Gulf War Illness, is the name for the symptoms that certain Persian Gulf War Veterans experience.
Since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, there have been numerous reports from veterans of unexplained, multi-symptom illnesses. These illnesses include chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, functional gastrointestinal disorders, and other undiagnosed illnesses. The symptoms of these illnesses may be similar to autoimmune diseases but have no clear causes.
Research suggests that there may be a link between Gulf War Syndrome and vaccinations, especially the experimental vaccine for anthrax. Here’s what Gulf War veterans should know.
Vaccines & Gulf War Syndrome
In addition to being exposed to various environmental hazards and toxic chemicals, Gulf War veterans were also given a large number of vaccines. Service members may have received as many as 17 vaccines in a short period of time. These vaccinations included the botulinum toxoid vaccine and anthrax vaccine, was were not yet approved by the FDA. Other vaccines included yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis B, meningitis, whooping cough, polio, and tetanus.
Vaccinations given to soldiers deploying for the Persian Gulf War may explain the complex and frequently misunderstood symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome.
Although there is a lot of research showing a link between vaccinations and Gulf War Syndrome, the Department of Veterans Affairs does not officially recognize that link. However, many different research organizations continue to evaluate possible causes of Gulf War veteran’s health problems. As part of the effort to learn more about how Gulf War service affected veterans, the VA established the Gulf War Registry.
Did the Anthrax Vaccine Make Service Members Ill?
In the late 90’s, the United States military created an anthrax vaccine immunization program (AVIP) 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. Squalene, a banned chemical additive and the vaccine adjuvant, was found in blood tests of hundreds of sick Gulf War veterans. Squalene is not approved for internal human use other than in highly controlled experiments, but it has been studied for use as a tool to boost the body’s immune systems against certain diseases.
Detecting the body’s immunological response to the vaccine may be the key to showing a correlation. In a study of Gulf War veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome, conducted by Tulane University, 95% of the veterans had high levels of anti-squalene antibodies in their blood. This shows that the body had an immune response to anthrax at some point. Researchers believe that the presence of squalene in the blood of study participants may suggest a possible link between the anthrax vaccine and Gulf War Syndrome.
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.
In 2002, a study of approximately 900 veterans found a strong correlation between the anthrax vaccine and subsequent health problems. Known side-effects of the anthrax vaccine can be mild, moderate, or severe. The following are examples of such side-effects:
- Mild/Moderate: reactions on the arm where the vaccine was given such as tenderness, redness, itching, development of a lump or bruise, muscle aches; headaches; joint pain; fever; and fatigue.
- Severe: signs that an adverse reaction to the anthrax vaccine is severe include difficulty breathing, weakness, hoarseness, wheezing, a fast heartbeat, hives, dizziness, paleness, or swelling of the lips and throat. Serious reactions involving the skin and nervous system have been reported, but a direct link to the anthrax vaccine has not been conclusively proven.
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. While there are lots of anthrax vaccine anecdotes with potential evidence, 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?
While the VA does acknowledge certain presumptive conditions for Gulf War veterans, obtaining benefits isn’t always easy.
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 health care experts can assist in working your claim if you feel that a vaccine has caused a disabling condition.
Have Questions About Your Claim?
Recipients of anthrax vaccines, as well as those suffering from Gulf War Syndrome, may be eligible for VA disability compensation. If you have questions about your VA disability claim, contact the team at Hill & Ponton today.
You can learn more about resources for Gulf War veterans on the VA’s website (VA.gov).
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