Anthrax Angst Syndrome

January 01, 2000  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  the Hudson Institute  ·  Military

Anthrax is one of the deadliest known diseases, and the "number one agent we need to protect against," according to Dr. Phillip Russell, former commander of the Army’s Medical Research and Development Command. It is nearly always fatal, depending on the amount of bacteria inhaled. According to the Pentagon, Iraq and at least nine other nations have anthrax weapons, and a single Iraqi aircraft equipped with aerosol tanks spraying the germ near the Kuwait border could imperil all of Kuwait and much of northern Saudi Arabia in a few hours.

Nine A-10 "Warthog" pilots resigned in a single day rather than take the vaccine.

But to hear some tell it, it’s the anthrax vaccination soldiers need protection against. Active duty, Reserve, and National Guard service personnel across the nation are refusing the Department of Defense order that all members of the armed forces receive the series of six shots that vaccinate against anthrax. In a single day last January, nine A-10 "Warthog" pilots with the Connecticut Air National Guard resigned rather than take the vaccine. Although the military claims that such refusals are rare, perhaps three hundred at most so far, it has no system for counting them.

According to a January 15,1999, article in the Baltimore Sun, internal Department of Defense documents indicate that half the pilots in some Air Guard squadrons are resigning or seeking nonflying jobs to avoid having to take the vaccine. Some documents described units "struggling" to conduct missions.

Why? Blame it on a mixture of old-fashioned mass paranoia, conspiracy theorists, media sensationalism, congressional demagogues, and a powerful new weapon of mass disinformation, the Internet.

Web Weirdness

The Internet has proved a powerful tool of disinformation in the anthrax vaccine hysteria.

Although some have questioned the efficacy of the anthrax vaccination, opposition to the vaccine centers on its allegedly horrific side-effects. A powerful weapon in the antivaccine arsenal is the Internet, where statements by ersatz experts about supposed symptoms are spread rapidly by e-mail, news groups, and websites that should have as their URLs and Pentagon spokespersons complain bitterly about the cyberspace horror stories, even as one anthrax agitator has exulted, "The Internet has been crucial in getting ’the rest of the story’ out about the anthrax vaccine."

Thus one website provides "The Detailed Story for Fifty Service Members at One Installation Alone," with a mouse click taking you to "shocking information of health for those at Dover Air Force Base." These mere fifty alleged victims have between them a symptom list longer than the stock tables in the average newspaper. These include complaints such as ringing ears, photosensitivity, joint pains, seizures, vertigo, miscarriages, insomnia, migraines, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, swollen testicles, cramps, memory loss, burning (no mention of where), blurry vision, coughing, wheezing, heart disease, stroke, "pressure in right ear," cold sweats, weight loss, vomiting, pain in toe of left foot, and bleeding gums. Although nobody reported waking up transformed into a gigantic insect, they apparently have indicated stranger symptoms: "lesions that turned into moles all over the body," "dry ear canals," "grayouts," "tightness in hands and wrists," and "pain in both toes." (Both?)

Some recipients of the vaccine claim symptoms that their doctors swear they don’t have, an indicator of hysteria.

Dr. Tom Luna, who supervises the Dover vaccination program, told me that in actuality, participants reported more than twenty-five symptoms. That is a large number but in part explainable, he said, by instructions for recipients to report anything they thought might be related to the vaccine. The other part is that the airmen had themselves been exposed to the horror stories. But what is most important, Dr. Luna said, is that the only common symptoms were "local reactions such as sore arm, redness, swelling at injection site."

As with Gulf War Syndrome (GWS), to which more than 120 different symptoms have been ascribed, this lack of commonality provides the best evidence that we are observing not organic illness but mass hysteria. People magazine made the point nicely in an article actually sympathetic to vaccine refusers. "First one Marine refused the shot, then another," it related. "Then [Lance Corporal Michael] Metzig himself, his heart racing, stepped out of line. ’Rumors about health problems with the vaccine were flying through the barracks,’ says Metzig. ’I heard it could make you sterile or you could get cancer.’"

Adverse Reactions and Untruthful Accusations

"There have been serious injuries," former CIA analyst Patrick Eddington told Sam Donaldson on ABC’s 20/20, claiming that he had obtained "the Pentagon’s own data that shows between 1977 and 1994, there were as many as twenty-three systemic reactions to this vaccine."

Sam Donaldson reporting on ABC’s 20/20: "We were unable to find any evidence of any long-term serious injury."

But, said Donaldson, "We were unable to find any evidence of any long-term serious injury. When it comes to systemic reactions, the Pentagon data Eddington obtained show that 0.5 percent of those vaccinated at one clinic had a systemic reaction." That’s actually quite low, according to Dr. Donald Henderson, head of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies. "I don’t think it causes as many reactions as a tetanus or typhoid vaccine," he told me. "And even with those you certainly can get a sore arm and fever but that’s about it."

The FDA licensed the anthrax vaccine in 1970, and as of mid-October 1999, approximately 352,000 people had been vaccinated with about 1.2 million doses. Since late 1990, a government-sponsored panel has tracked adverse reactions to all U.S.-licensed vaccines, encouraging "All reporting of any clinically significant adverse event occurring after the administration of any vaccine" (emphasis in original). Despite the wide definition of adverse event, only 362 were reported, most coming after the negative publicity began. Of those, seventeen recipients were hospitalized, though only five cases were attributed to the vaccine, and all of these were allergic reactions. "We are confident that the anthrax vaccine is safe and effective," says FDA spokesman Kathryn Zoon.

"A Sick Little [False] Secret"

According to a June 1999 San Diego Union-Tribune article that was nationally syndicated, "The [anthrax] vaccine, according to a memo signed by [Army Secretary Louis] Caldera, ’involves unusually hazardous risks associated with the potential for adverse reactions in some recipients and the possibility that the desired immunological effect will not be obtained by all recipients.’" The story reported that Mr. Eddington told CNBC, "The Secretary of the Army acknowledges in this memo that this vaccine does pose some very, very serious potential risks to anybody who’s thinking about taking it."

The story was false. The memo it alluded to was a letter of indemnification (for reimbursement of legal claims), and the sentence in question began, "The obligation assumed by [vaccine maker] MBPI under this contract involves unusually hazardous risks. . . ." The reference to risk applied not to the vaccine recipients but to the manufacturer! Pentagon representatives have taken great pains to point this out publicly, yet the story lives on in cyberspace and print.

In a classic example of pack journalism, five Canadian newspapers ran versions of the false story four months after the San Diego paper did, including "A Sick Little Secret: U.S. Knew of Side Effects of Canadian Army’s Anthrax" (Edmonton Sun), and "U.S. Calls Anthrax Vaccine Unsafe" (Toronto Star). Ah, but vaccine opponents argue that the mere fact that the military felt obligated to indemnify the maker at all is ominous. That, too, is incorrect. Since 1986, under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, the government has indemnified makers of childhood vaccines for diseases such as tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, and measles.

The Usual Suspects

If the anthrax angst reminds you of the distress over GWS, it should. Certainly the cast of characters overlaps greatly. Mr. Eddington, for example, wrote a book about the alleged GWS cover-up. Though it was titled, Gassed in the Gulf, he has readily accepted several theories as to the cause of GWS, until each one fell out of vogue and a new one came along. Rep. Chris Shays (R-CN) held fourteen hearings on GWS, inviting only vets with the wildest stories to testify, such as the one who claimed to suffer from glowing vomit during physical training five days a week for ten straight months. Rep. Shays has responded similarly to the panic over anthrax vaccinations, holding five hearings so far.

As with GWS, however, the scientific evidence is so lopsided that Rep. Shays and the media feel compelled to invent experts to oppose the vaccine. One such is Dr. Meryl Nass, who has testified before Rep. Shays’s committee. Although dozens of newspapers have identified her as an anthrax-vaccine specialist, she is nothing more than a Maine physician who argues for the existence of GWS and another syndrome the mainstream medical community rejects, multiple chemical sensitivity. She’s also a member of the activist, antimilitary group Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Some of the fear of the injections appears to be simply a fear of injections. (Actually, the anthrax vaccination is administered in the arm, not the rump).Gannett News Service reporter and Pulitzer Prize winner John Hanchette, himself a GWS advocate turned antianthrax-vaccine crusader, calls Nass a "much-published expert on anthrax," failing to mention that her only publication in a major medical or science journal was a letter to the editor. Nass admits that her expertise on anthrax is simply self-learned, but she makes up for it with a loud voice, a sturdy soapbox, and spicy comments that activists and reporters like to hear. She has been made an expert precisely because she says outlandish things that actual experts in the field would never say.

Other quoted and self-styled experts speaking out for anthraxus vaccinus interreptus include San Diego nurse Joyce Riley, a spokeswoman for the American Gulf War Veterans Association who claims to have been infected with GWS by a patient she was treating. She also claims to have written documentation from 1970 ordering the development of what would later be called AIDS. (The first U.S. AIDS case, however, has been traced back to 1969. Oops.) Without singling out anybody specifically, Dr. Henderson told me, "I find disturbing the media’s tendency to say, ’Well, there are two points of view.’" But, he said, "There are a couple of nuts out there with one point of view and 99.9 percent of the medical community with another. Should both sides be treated equally?"

One Air Force Reserve officer who resigned, Lt. Col. Raymond Handy, claims that the Department of Defense’s vaccine policy "has a cancerous influence on morale and readiness." He says, "We can’t allow this to go unchallenged." Actually, it’s the activist rumor-mongering and unsupportable accusations from the media, a few vociferous congressmen, and prefab experts that are having the cancerous influence and are eroding morale and readiness.

But Lt. Col. Handy is right: we cannot allow this to go unchallenged. The anthrax-vaccine hysteria is merely the latest manifestation of the quest for a "risk-free society" in which we expect our chance of illness, injury, and even death to be zero. If we do fall ill, somebody must be to blame. This mentality is all the more bizarre when it concerns people who volunteered to risk death in the defense of their country.

The real threat here to U.S. military preparedness is not GWS or any vaccine; it is the willingness of the military and civilian establishments to kow tow to self-described victims when the evidence clearly shows that their claims are false. The government has already been far too craven in placating GWS activists. If it caves in to the anthrax-vaccine hysteria, the military may find itself unable to defend the nation at all.