Four hundred thousand servicemen and women have been vaccinated against the threat of an anthrax attack. In one extreme case, Army Specialist Kevin Edwards became so ill several weeks after he was vaccinated that he ended up in the burn ward. Doctors can't say for sure what caused this, but they reported it as a suspected reaction to the anthrax vaccine.
On Thursday a House subcommittee said the mandatory series of six shots should be suspended until a safer, more effective vaccine can be developed.
"We know that the motives were good of the military," said the congressional subcommittee's chairman, Christopher Shays, R-Conn. "We think they have made a gigantic mistake."
But the Pentagon says it will continue to vaccinate all members of the armed forces serving in Korea and the Persian Gulf, where the threat of an anthrax attack is greatest.
"We've got troops that are in danger of aerosolized, weaponized anthrax today. We can't wait until we've got a new and improved vaccine to give them the protection that they need," says Major General Randy West, an Army biological warfare advisor.
Anthrax has never been used in combat, but the Pentagon fears Iraq, North Korea and other countries or terrorist groups might try.
Anthrax is a naturally occurring bacteria found in domesticated animals; it can be produced as dry spores that, when inhaled, cause death within a few days.
Acording to the Pentagon, only 6 soldiers have experienced a severe enough reaction to put them in the hospital. That's about the same rate as most childhood vaccinations. That risk, the Pentagon says, pales in comparison to the threat posed by anthrax.
"This is an agent that is as deadly as ebola," says Dr. Sue Bailey, Assistant Secretar for Health Affairs. "It is virtually 100 percent deadly after you've developed symptoms."
Nevertheless, about 350 members of the armed forces, including Air Force Major Sonnie Bates, have refused to take the anthrax shot.
"I've taken all the other shots that's required to go worldwide," Bates says, "and we've never had any illness like we're seeing today."
Bates is still locked in a legal battle with the Air Force, but most service members who refuse to take the shot are discharged. Now that a House subcommittee has called the anthrax vaccination program "ill-conceived," the number of refuseniks is likely to grow.
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