Use of Vaccines in the Gulf War
Since the end of the 1991 Gulf War, there have been numerous reports from veterans of unexplained, multisymptom illnesses. In addition to being exposed to various environmental hazards and toxic chemicals, Gulf War veterans were also given a large number of vaccines. Vaccinations given to soldiers deploying for the Persian Gulf War may explain the complex and frequently misunderstood symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome, also known as Gulf War Illness.
The hope is that vaccinations prevent health conditions and protect individuals, but there are always risks and side effects that go hand in hand with the administering of vaccines. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) researches the effectiveness and safety of vaccines before they license it for general use. Before the testing is complete, the vaccine is considered to be “investigational.” This means that the vaccine is approved for limited use in humans, and more studies must be done before the general public can have access to them. Both licensed and investigational vaccines were given to troops in the Gulf War.
The military requires certain vaccinations that are not commonly necessary due to the fact that troops are more likely to acquire certain diseases under certain conditions, or they might be deployed to certain areas where diseases are more common. For example, the military routinely administers the typhoid vaccine andn the yellow fever vaccine. In addition to the routine vaccinations given to military personnel, Gulf War veterans received biological warfare vaccines. From the start of Operation Desert Shield and later Desert Storm, the U.S. military was worried that Iraq might use biological weapons. Of particular concern to the U.S. military was the threat of anthrax as a biological warfare agent. Anthrax is a disease with a very high mortality rate. Within a few days of inhalation or other exposure, symptoms such as fatigue, fever, and cough begin. The symptoms then progress to severe breathing difficulties and shock. The potential danger of coming in contact with anthrax resulted in the administration of the anthrax vaccine to U.S. troops. It is estimated that approximately 1500,000 U.S. troops received at least 1 anthrax vaccination.
The Anthrax Vaccine
Of the vaccines that Gulf War veterans received, one of the most controversial ones is the anthrax vaccine. Concerns were raised over the effectiveness of the vaccine against protecting against inhalation of anthrax, quality control in the production of the vaccine, the vaccine’s short and long-term health effects, the components of the vaccine, and policies of military service that required mandatory vaccination.
A major concern, and one of great debate, is the side-effects of giving the anthrax vaccine to servicemembers. There is still a lot of research that needs to be done to determine the long-term side-effects of the anthrax vaccine and the link to gulf war veterans’ illnesses. Adding to the lack of information is that many of the Department of Defense’s (DOD) studies on the safety of the vaccine do not include long-term follow up with U.S. veterans. All vaccines pose a risk of adverse side effects. Common side effects of vaccines include soreness and swelling where the vaccine was administered, and fever. However, there is always a risk that a vaccine can produce more serious side-effects. 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.
Another concern regarding the anthrax vaccine is the components used to make the vaccine. One of these components is squalene. Squalene, a banned chemical additive, 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. In a study of Gulf War veterans suffering from Gulf War Syndrome, conducted by Tulane University, 95% of the veterans had high levels of squalene antibodies in their blood. Researchers believe this may suggest a possible link between the anthrax vaccine and 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.