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Senator: Military must review vaccine use

By MARK BENJAMIN   |   Nov. 24, 2003 at 7:18 PM
WASHINGTON, Nov. 24 (UPI) -- A week after the Pentagon acknowledged one soldier's death might have been caused by a vaccine reaction, a U.S. senator is calling on the military to reconsider mandatory anthrax and smallpox vaccinations that he says could be causing "grievous" harm.

Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., plans on Tuesday to introduce a "Sense of the Senate" resolution asking Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to review the vaccine program amid growing reports of serious side effects. He also argues that U.S. troops face less risk of a biological attack since the overthrow of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

"There is a growing number of disturbing reports about how some of our servicemembers have contracted health problems shortly after receiving the anthrax and smallpox vaccines," Bingaman says in remarks prepared for delivery in the Senate Tuesday.

"These illnesses include mysterious pneumonia-like illnesses, heart problems, blood clots, and other medical conditions that have stricken otherwise young, healthy, and strong military personnel. It has even resulted in deaths."

On Nov. 19, the Pentagon acknowledged vaccinations might have led to the April death of Army nurse Rachael Lacy, who died after receiving shots for anthrax, smallpox and three other diseases. The Pentagon said her death might have been due to an underlying disorder that was triggered by one or more vaccines.

"Vaccinations are important tools to keep our servicemembers protected and healthy. Specialist Lacy's case was rare and clearly tragic," Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs, said last week. "We plan to continue to carefully administer our vaccination programs, including careful monitoring of adverse events that follow administration."

Bingaman acknowledges in his prepared remarks that "vaccines are an important factor in ensuring protection of our nation's military personnel from health threats -- both natural or from biological weapons -- in overseas conflicts."

But he said he is concerned "our current Department of Defense policies may be failing them, with grievous consequences."

"An estimated 84 percent of the personnel who had anthrax vaccine shots ... reported having side effects or reactions," says Bingaman's resolution, a copy of which was obtained by United Press International.

The resolution also notes that a government advisory committee withdrew its support for expanding the smallpox vaccination program for first responders "after finding that 1 in 500 civilians vaccinated for smallpox had a serious vaccine event."

The resolution calls for the military to reconsider punishments given to servicemembers who refuse to take the vaccines. Some have been court-martialed for refusing the vaccinations and others have left the military rather than receive them.

Prospects for the resolution do not look promising -- Bingaman introduced the measure without any co-sponsors. But the issue is getting increased attention among veterans groups and soldiers' families.

Bingaman's statement cites UPI and CBS News reports that "have identified a growing number of deaths and severe illnesses that point to the anthrax and smallpox vaccines." It also quotes from UPI's reporting on problems of sick, injured and wounded soldiers, many of whom served in Iraq, who have been stuck for weeks and months in "medical hold" awaiting treatment.

"At Fort Knox, according to a UPI story, 369 of the 422 soldiers did not deploy to Operation Iraqi Freedom because of their illnesses. This includes, according to the story, 'strange clusters of heart problems and breathing problems (also experienced by) soldiers at Fort Stewart and other locations,'" Bingaman said.

"These are health problems that are often cited as adverse events accompanying the anthrax and smallpox vaccines," he said.

"We certainly do not know whether these cases have been caused by the anthrax or smallpox vaccine at this point. In fact, these personnel desperately await any medical treatment and that must be addressed."

© 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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