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Recruit Deaths Spur Vaccine Push

Four military recruits died in the past year and thousands others were sickened by a flu-like virus for which the military once had a vaccine program that was abandoned to save money.

The respiratory virus now infects monthly up to 2,500 service members — 1 in 10 recruits — at the nation's eight basic-training centers, according to a Seattle Times analysis of military health-care records.

More than three decades ago, the Pentagon commissioned two pills to ward off the adenovirus, but defense officials abandoned the program in 1996 as too expensive, the paper reported.

The vaccine's original manufacturer, Wyeth Laboratories, warned as early as 1984 that it would stop churning out pills costing $1 each unless defense officials allocated $5 million to repair a deteriorating production plant.

Wyeth executives shuttered the facility in 1996. A military health budget later stated the program had been stopped "to pay higher priority items."

Military foot-dragging and high turnover of procurement officers have caused the replacement vaccine to fall behind schedule, making pills unavailable until at least 2007, military health-care records show.

Dr. Margaret Ryan, a commander at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego and an expert on the virus, calls the vaccine lapse "indefensible."

Since vaccines stopped, the virus has been associated with six deaths, including four within the past year, according to military records and internal reports obtained by The Times.

A top Pentagon official called it "a major screw-up," hobbling U.S. efforts to rapidly deploy troops abroad.

The virus is expected to kill an additional six to 10 recruits before a vaccine is again available, according to a classified Defense Department briefing this year.

Six children of service members in the Puget Sound area also were diagnosed with the virus last winter, doctors at Madigan Army Medical Center near Tacoma said.

Adenovirus can be spread through contact and thrives in confined places such as overcrowded barracks. Overstressed recruits, trying to get in shape and adapt to the military, are ideal incubators for the virus.

Most people rebound from the infection within days, but if untreated, fever, sore throat and labored breathing can quickly develop and lead to severe respiratory problems such as pneumonia and perhaps death.

Nationally, the virus has killed more than two dozen civilian children and adults in outbreaks in medical facilities in Illinois, Louisiana, Iowa, Tennessee and New York, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.

The Pentagon's unwillingness to spend $5 million on health care is now costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars to remedy, The Times said.

In September 2001, plagued by boot-camp outbreaks, defense officials finally agreed to spend $35.4 million to develop a new vaccine through Barr Laboratories of Forest, Va.

Shortly afterward, Assistant Secretary of Defense William Winkenwerder Jr. ordered vaccine efforts accelerated, according to transcripts of a Feb. 19, 2002, meeting at North Island Naval Air Station in San Diego.

"This is one of the most disappointing facts and stories that I've learned upon coming into my position," he said. "I don't want to cast aspersions on anybody who had responsibility in the past, but to be blunt this is a major screw-up."

Military deaths from illness have been falling over the past two decades, from 457 in 1981 to 178 in 2002. In Iraq, 32 of the more than 1,050 U.S. deaths are attributed to illness — about 3 percent.

The recent illness casualties represent a massive improvement over earlier eras in the U.S. military. In the Civil, Spanish-American, Mexican and First World wars, non-battle deaths — including illnesses and accidents — actually exceeded combat deaths.

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