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Mystery pneumonia toll may be much higher

By MARK BENJAMIN, UPI Investigations Editor   |   Sept. 17, 2003 at 8:05 AM   |   Comments

WASHINGTON, Sept. 16 (UPI) -- Mysterious pneumonia-like illnesses and breathing problems appear to be striking U.S. troops in greater numbers than the military has identified in an investigation -- including more deaths, according to soldiers and their families.

Some of the soldiers were deployed to Iraq and died but are not part of the Pentagon's investigation. Others who got ill told United Press International they suffered a pneumonia-like illness after being given vaccines, particularly the anthrax shot.

The Pentagon said it is committed to the health of military personnel and that some dead or ill soldiers do not meet criteria for the investigation. Pentagon health officials said a statistical analysis essentially has ruled out vaccines and that the role of smoking has emerged as a leading factor instead.

One Air Force staff sergeant who was deployed to Turkey for Operation Iraqi Freedom told UPI he was hospitalized in Incerlik in March with a pneumonia-like illness, 10 days after his fourth anthrax shot. He got his next anthrax shot in August, and 10 days later was hospitalized in California with what he said was the same pneumonia-like illness.

"They said I had considerable inflammation of the lungs," said Staff Sgt. Neal B. Erickson Sr., 43, in a telephone interview from Moffett Field south of San Francisco. "I had severe chest pains, dizziness and shortness of breath."

He said he does not smoke and that doctors thought he had blood clots or a heart attack. Tests for viruses or bacteria "came back clean," Erickson said. "They basically labeled it as a type of pneumonia."

He said the military is not recognizing that the shots made him sick and that he is afraid of getting the next anthrax shot, scheduled in five months.

"I'm real touchy here. Come a few more months, I'm in line to get another. It's not like we have a choice in the matter." Military personnel are required to take the shots and can be court-martialed if they refuse.

Erickson said there are at least four similar cases in his squadron, including one hospitalization.

The Pentagon is investigating what it says is a mysterious pneumonia cluster that has sickened around 100 soldiers deployed across Southwest Asia. "I'll bet I'm not in (the Pentagon's) numbers," Erickson said.

Pentagon health officials repeatedly have emphasized that the number of sick soldiers in their investigation show there is no "epidemic" among U.S. troops. They are concentrating on 19 service members who have gotten so sick they needed ventilators to breathe; two of those died.

"We do not have an epidemic," Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs William Winkenwerder Jr. told reporters last week. "The rates of pneumonia among personnel deployed to Southwest Asia in the past six months are consistent with what we would have expected, and we have data that strongly supports that."

The Pentagon has identified two deaths in its investigation: the July 12 death of Army Spc. Joshua M. Neusche, 20; and the June 17 death of Army Sgt. Michael L. Tosto, 24. Neusche's family wrote Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld last month seeking an independent investigation of his death. Tosto's wife, Stephanie, told UPI last month she was frustrated at the lack of information on her husband's death, but said she thinks vaccines played a role.

At least two more soldiers deployed to Iraq died with fluid in their lungs, according to their families; one of those was found dead in his cot. The Pentagon has not released any information on two more soldiers found dead in Iraq under similar circumstances. In a fifth case, a 20-year-old died after what the Pentagon said were "breathing difficulties" and his mother has said she wants more information.

At least two more soldiers died after experiencing chest pain, including the Aug. 27 death of 43-year-old Lt. Col Anthony L. Sherman, who competed in triathlons and marathons. "The only thing they had to tell me was severe myocardial infarction," said his wife, Lisa Ann, from Pottstown, Pa. "In my heart of hearts, I believe there was more to it than just a heart attack. He was in too good of shape."

All of those deaths appear on the Pentagon list of non-combat related fatalities but were not included in the pneumonia investigation.

The Pentagon said that in its investigation, it has focused on a specific group of ill soldiers. "Other cases are medically reviewed separately because it would be scientifically inappropriate to combine the reviews," Pentagon medical officials told UPI in a written statement.

The investigation is focused on serious cases of illness that occurred between March 1 and Aug. 31 among military personnel who were deployed and who report to the United States Central Command, which includes the Horn of Africa, South and Central Asia and the Northern Red Sea regions, as well as the Arabian Peninsula and Iraq. Pentagon investigators are focusing on soldiers who developed pneumonia in both lungs and were placed on ventilators to breathe.

Some civilian doctors said those parameters are too narrow and ignore cases that could help identify the cause.

"I think the military is making a scientific mistake by restricting the region from which they are collecting these cases," said Dr. Meryl Nass, a doctor who treats soldiers who say they were harmed by vaccines. "There is no scientific reason to limit the geographical envelope from which cases are identified," Nass said. "You want to capture as many cases as possible to investigate, in order to get a broad outline of all the features of the disease."

Pentagon officials said their statistical analysis shows that vaccinated military personnel are no more likely to develop pneumonia than unvaccinated soldiers. Nor are they more likely to develop it soon after getting vaccinated.

"We knew beforehand that the rate of pneumonia in anthrax-vaccinated people and in anthrax-unvaccinated people were essentially the same, so our starting point was that this was unlikely," Col. John Grabenstein, deputy director of the Military Vaccine Office, told reporters.

Pentagon health officials said 10 of the 19 cases they are studying had eosinophilia, or the presence of a large number of a specific kind of white blood cell that can indicate an allergic response. Doctors have been unable to detect any virus or bacteria that might have caused the illness in those cases.

A reaction to a drug might cause eosinophilia, according to the Centers for Disease Control doctor assisting the military in the investigation, Dr. Steve Ostroff.

"Obviously, one can have an allergy to a particular type of medication ... and that is certainly a line of investigation we can't entirely exclude," Ostroff told reporters. "There doesn't seem to be any particular type of unifying treatment that was given to these individuals."

A civilian doctor questioned that logic.

"They keep saying there is no common exposure, but every one of those soldiers got vaccinated," said Dr. Jeffrey Sartin, an infectious diseases doctor at the Gundersen Clinic in La Crosse, Wis. "That is one definite common exposure that should not be dismissed out of hand."

"Statistics by themselves only give you part of the story," said Sartin, a former Air Force doctor. "They are getting a bird's eye view of the forest but they are not getting down and looking at the trees."

This spring, Sartin treated Army Spc. Rachel Lacy of Lynwood, Ill., who died April 4 after a pneumonia-like illness. He and a coroner linked that soldier's death to either the anthrax or smallpox vaccines she had received March 2, before falling ill.

Lacy's June 3 death certificate lists vaccines as a possible cause for her lung damage, heart inflammation "with eosinophils," and "lupus-like autoimmune disease."

The military, which did not treat her or perform the autopsy, said her death was likely not due to vaccines.

A number of soldiers who were not deployed said the anthrax vaccine made them sick.

Army Pvt. Dennis W. Drew, 27, got his first anthrax shot April 24 at Fort Hood, Texas, in preparation for going to Iraq. He started feeling ill April 27.

"I started getting a real sharp pain in my chest. I had a hard time breathing and every time I moved, my chest hurt." Drew said. "I checked into a hospital and I found out I had pneumonia in my left lung and myocarditis, a swelling of the heart. Basically, my health has been going down hill ever since."

Drew says he quit smoking four years ago and was in good shape. In addition to his pneumonia, he said he has since suffered from severe headaches, loss of peripheral vision and constant colds. "It is like my immune system does not work anymore," he said. "When I first got to Fort Hood, the doctor there thought the myocarditis might have been caused by the vaccine."

Drew wrote to Congress about his belief that the vaccine has ruined his life with his wife and two small children.

"I would invite anyone who doesn't believe in the adverse reaction of the anthrax vaccine to come spend a day in my home to see first hand what my family and I go through," Drew wrote to House National Security Subcommittee Chairman Chris Shays, R-Conn., on Aug. 31. "We are just victims of wanting to serve our country."

Drew said he knows of three other similar cases at Fort Hood.

Among deaths of soldiers with pneumonia-like symptoms and breathing problems who served in operation Iraqi Freedom, and are not included in the Pentagon investigation:

-- Army Spc. Zeferino E. Colunga, 20, of Bellville, Texas. Colunga died on Aug. 6 after being evacuated from Iraq to Germany. Colunga's family wrote Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld last month seeking an independent analysis of his death from "this 'so-called' mystery illness." The family said Colunga "died at a hospital in Germany after a battle with pneumonia and a subsequent diagnosis of acute leukemia. We deserve to know why a healthy young man who was supposedly screened and determined fit for deployment would suddenly die," the letter says. The military specifically ruled out Colunga's death as part of the pneumonia cluster.

-- Army Spc. Cory A. Hubbell, 20, of Urbana, Ill. Hubbel died June 26 from what has been reported as "breathing difficulties," and listed by the Pentagon as a "non-combat related cause." He died after being hospitalized at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. Hubbel's mother, Connie Bickers, told the Champaign News-Gazette that the Army is not giving her many answers on the death.

-- Army Spc. Levi B. Kinchen, 21, of Tickfaw, La. Tickfaw died Aug. 9 in Baghdad. A fellow soldier tried to wake him and noticed he was not breathing, according to the Pentagon. He was assigned to 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, Fort Polk, La.

-- Army Staff Sergeant Richard S. Eaton Jr., 37, of Guilford, Conn. Eaton was found dead on the morning of Aug. 12. The military has told the family that Eaton died of pulmonary edema, or fluid in his lungs, that might have been heat-related. Eaton's father Richard told UPI he has no reason to doubt the Army's explanation, but he said he has not received a final report on his son.

-- Army Pvt. Matthew D. Bush, 20, of East Alton, Ill. Bush died Aug. 8 in Camp Caldwell, Iraq. A fellow soldier tried to wake him and noticed he was not breathing, according to the Pentagon. Pentagon officials have indicated that his death might have been heat-related.

-- Army Staff Sgt. David L. Loyd, 44, of Jackson, Tenn. Loyd died Aug. 5 in a Kuwaiti hospital after he experienced severe chest pains while on a mission. He was assigned to the 1175th Transportation Company, Army National Guard, Brownsville, Tenn.

-- Lt. Col. Anthony L. Sherman, 43, of Pottstown, Pa. Sherman died on Aug. 27 in Camp Arifjan, Kuwait. The Pentagon said Sherman died "as a result of non-combat related injury (medical)." His wife, Lisa Ann, said the Army told her Sherman died of "a severe myocardial infarction." She said she was suspicious because he was a marathon runner. Sherman was assigned to the 304th Civil Affairs Brigade, U.S. Army Reserves, based in Philadelphia, Pa.

-- Army Spc. William A. Jeffries, 39, of Evansville, Ind. Jeffries died March 31 at a hospital in Spain after becoming sick in Kuwait. A military official reportedly told Jeffries' family that he suffered a blood clot in his lung and acute pancreatitis.


Photos are available with this story: FMP2003091601 through -1607.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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