The Pentagon announced Monday it will inoculate an estimated 2.4 million of its uniformed personnel and reservists against deadly anthrax - the first time the U.S. military has conducted such a vaccination program to protect against a germ-warfare agent.
Defense Secretary William Cohen said he made the decision to launch the $130 million program after a three-year study showed that vaccination is the surest way to guard against an almost universally fatal agent.
“This is a force protection issue,” Cohen said. “To be effective, medical force protection must be comprehensive, well-documented and consistent. I have instructed the military to put such a program in place.”
Anthrax is caused by a lethal bacterium believed among those found in the standard biological arsenals of at least 10 nations, the Pentagon said. It did not name the countries, but they are believed to include Iraq, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Russia and China.
The vaccine first will be given next summer to 100,000 troops in the high-threat areas of the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia.
Within the next several years, it will be given to all troops - numbering about 1.5 million - as well as those reservists who routinely train and are likely to be called to active duty in an emergency, Pentagon officials said.
The Pentagon has increased its scrutiny of the danger of biological weapons since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the conflict that brought U.S. soldiers under the very real threat of unconventional weapons for the first time since World War I.
Later terrorist bombings aimed at U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and fears that enemies such as Iraq and North Korea might use biological weapons prompted the Pentagon initiative, officials said. Moreover, the decision comes amid the continuing dispute with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein over United Nations attempts to gain access to his weapons arsenal.
Such factors “make it prudent to include biological warfare defense as part of our force protection planning,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
Anthrax is a spore-producing organism that can be stored in dry form indefinitely and then released into the atmosphere through detonation or spray. Once breathed into the lungs, the spores germinate, producing a massive infection; this is followed by bleeding in the lungs, shock and then death, often within days.
The disease - which usually afflicts only animals, especially cattle and sheep - also can be acquired through the skin and the gastrointestinal tract, but is considered less serious in these circumstamces, according to experts.
“Our goal is to vaccinate everybody in the force so they will be ready to deploy anywhere, anytime,” said Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, who will supervise the program.
Great Britain and Russia already give mandatory anti-anthrax inoculations to their troops, and the vaccine is widely used by veterinarians, laboratory workers and civilians who work with livestock.
For U.S. troops, inoculations against a variety of diseases - ranging from measles to small pox - are normal.
More than one-quarter of U.S. forces who served in the Gulf War were inoculated against anthrax. The recommendation to initiate the inoculation as a routine procedure has been under debate for several years.
Although the inoculation plan had been studied at the Pentagon, Cohen directed that it be independently assessed by Dr. Gerald N. Burrow of Yale University before approving it.
The vaccine consists of a series of six subcutaneous (under the skin) inoculations administered over 18 months, followed by an annual booster. Protection levels increase as shots in the series are given, but the entire series is required for full protection. It is considered highly effective - but it is useless if administered after exposure to the organism.
The vaccine’s side effects have been shown to be minimal - it has caused malaise and fatigue in fewer than 0.2 percent of those receiving it, and chills and fever in a few cases, according to the labeling information on the product.