Problems with Military Vaccines
Meryl Nass, MD
Although biological warfare is considered a military threat, achieving mass casualties is extremely difficult. Historically, the target has been civilians, not troops. Nonetheless, the Defense Department has undertaken to vaccinate all deploying soldiers to Central Command with anthrax and smallpox vaccines: approximately 1.8 million soldiers have received each in the past ten years.
In retrospect, the current administration used the threat of chemical and biological warfare to buttress a preemptive strike on Iraq in 2003. Initiating smallpox vaccinations for soldiers and civilians may have had more to do with public relations than public health. The civilian program stopped after 40,000 inoculations, due to cardiac complications.
Despite this, the mandatory military smallpox vaccination program has never slowed down. According to the CDC Advisory Committee for Immunization Practices, such vaccination programs require a risk-benefit analysis, which was never performed. The Institute of Medicine’s analysis of the smallpox program noted, “The combination of known vaccine-related problems and an immeasurable disease threat was deeply problematic.”
The smallpox vaccine caused myocarditis in one of every 145 people who received it in a clinical trial, leading to a black box warning in the label. However, the warning fell on deaf ears, since the vaccine remained a requirement for deployment.
Recently, a newer smallpox vaccine, derived from the old vaccine, was licensed. The government announced that stocks of the old vaccine would be destroyed, and the new vaccine would be given to soldiers. But is there really a difference? The new vaccine is said to cause myocarditis in one in 175 recipients.
The anthrax vaccine story is similar: the General Accounting Office reported to Congress in both 1999 and 2006 that the long-term safety of the vaccine is unknown. Crucial data and research remain buried.
Although civilians injured by smallpox vaccine can seek compensation from a government fund, soldiers are barred by the Feres Doctrine from compensation, and their only recourse in the event of illness is the healthcare system of the military and Veterans Administration. Unfortunately, vaccine-induced illnesses generally respond poorly to treatment.
In the absence of both demonstrable threat and effectiveness against biological weapons, these pork barrel vaccine programs exact much too high a price from our service-members and our treasury. It is time to end the politicization of military public health.