Opt-Out Military

January 01, 2003  ·  Michael Fumento  ·  National Review Online  ·  Military

Anthrax is the "No. 1 agent we need to protect [our troops] against," according to Dr. Philip Russell, former commander of the U.S. Army Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick, Maryland. But the decision of a single federal judge would strip away that protection. He has ruled that soldiers who don’t want to be vaccinated against anthrax can simply refuse, even though it would weaken their units in case of an anthrax attack.

It may not feel as good as a back rub, but experts say it’s rather better than contracting anthrax.

The pre-Christmas decision of D.C. District Court judge Emmet G. Sullivan, which will be binding until the full court can hear the trial, was based on federal legislation, pushed by peacenik congressmen such as Connecticut Republican Representative Chris Shays. It prohibits the use of certain "experimental" drugs on soldiers unless recipients give express consent or the president waives the consent requirement.

Shays has also led the charge in alleging a Gulf War Syndrome (GWS) "cover-up," having held over a dozen hearings on the subject. Shays seized on the alleged syndrome to vindicate his position as one of the few Republicans to vote against Desert Shield/Desert Storm, saying a war would lead to massive U.S. casualities.

In fact, extensive epidemiological studies have shown that Gulf vets are just as healthy as matched vets who didn’t deploy and healthier than matched civilians. They are somewhat less likely to have died than non-deployed vets and are dying at less than half the rate of the general population. This is not only the case here, but in the U.K. as well. There is no GWS.

But Shays insists the syndrome is real and that among the huge list of possible causes have been the anthrax vaccination (known by its initials as AVA). He’s held at least five hearings on them. Indeed his claim that AVA may cause GWS led to the opt-out legislation, and he celebrated Sullivan’s decision declaring "Mass, mandatory inoculations were a heavy-handed over-reaction to the uncertain threat of anthrax on the battlefield." In other words, unless we’re absolutely certain an enemy will use a weapon against us we shouldn’t prepare a defense against it.

Yet this "experimental drug," the one that the good judge claimed made soldiers "serve as guinea pigs," received FDA approval back in 1970. But never mind how long it’s been used or that over a million servicemen have received it; if it’s FDA-approved it’s not experimental. Case closed; game over.

The only "experimental" aspect of the vaccine is that its original purpose was to protect against natural anthrax from sheep, not weaponized bacteria, and that anthrax from sheep usually comes from cuts and not inhalation. That’s what Sullivan latched onto, noting the vaccine label does not specify which method of exposure it protects against.

But the plaintiffs didn’t file suit because they thought the vaccine might not be helpful. After all, what would they lose if it didn’t work since there are no alternative vaccines? Rather, the suit was based on hysteria that began circulating in the late 1990s.

Statements by self-proclaimed experts about supposed symptoms were spread rapidly by e-mail, news groups, and websites that should have as their URLs www.paranoia.com and www.conspiracy.org. Thus one website provided "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 50 alleged victims had between them a symptom list longer than the stock tables in the Wall Street Journal.

Nobody has claimed the vaccine has turned them into a giant bug. Yet.

Complaints included ringing ears, photosensitivity, joint pains, seizures, vertigo, miscarriages, insomnia, migraines, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, swollen testicles, cramps, memory loss, blurry vision, coughing, wheezing, heart disease, stroke, "pressure in right ear," cold sweats, weight loss, vomiting, bleeding gums, and "lesions that turned into moles all over the body."

Some vaccine recipients claimed symptoms that their doctors insisted they didn’t have.

At the time these symptom rumors were making the rounds, physician and Lt. Col. Tom Luna, who supervised the Dover vaccination program, told me that the only common symptoms were "local reactions such as sore arm, redness, swelling at injection site."

As with GWS, the media did its part to spread hysteria. People magazine quoted a Marine corporal who refused the vaccine as saying, "I heard it could make you sterile or you could get cancer."

But further research has supported the military’s position. "FDA continues to view the anthrax vaccine as safe and effective for individuals at high risk of exposure to anthrax," a spokeswoman told Congress in 2000. After the judge’s decision it issued a "final rule and final order" that the vaccine "is safe and effective for the prevention of anthrax disease – regardless of the route of exposure."

The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and its Institute of Medicine (IOM), in a March 2002 report found "no evidence that vaccine recipients face an increased risk of experiencing life-threatening or permanently disabling adverse events immediately after receiving AVA, when compared with the general population." Nor did it find "any convincing evidence that vaccine recipients face elevated risk of developing adverse health effects over the longer term, although data are limited in this regard (as they are for all vaccines)."

"Excuse me, but I’ve decided to ’opt-out’ of this mission! See ya!"

As the NAS indicated, no vaccine is risk-free. Nevertheless, in government statistics on all self-reported adverse reactions to all U.S.-licensed vaccines, out of 27 vaccines tracked in 2001 only six had a lower percentage of adverse events than AVA. One vaccine (combined diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus) had an adverse-report rate 35 times that of AVA. Interestingly, the 2001 AVA rate was merely a sixth that of 1999. Why? Because 1999 was the height of the anthrax-vaccine hysteria.

Regarding efficacy, the NAS found "The available evidence from studies with humans and animals, coupled with reasonable assumptions of analogy, shows that AVA as licensed is an effective vaccine for the protection of humans against anthrax, including inhalational anthrax, caused by any known or plausible engineered strains of B. anthracis."

But Judge Sullivan, in his infinite wisdom and by virtue of having a law degree, allegedly looked at this same evidence and demanded anthracis vaccinus interruptus.

What’s next? Can a soldier refuse to carry a machine gun because it’s too heavy or opt out of especially dangerous operations?

Before the invasion of Iraq, 19 nations other than the U.S. were known to have biological weapons programs although all these may not have included anthrax. Moreover, the list does not include future possession nor present or future possession by terrorist groups.

President Bush must revoke this science-less, senseless privilege and Congress must repeal the law it passed back in those halcyon pre-9/11 days. We cannot defend our country with an opt-out military.

Michael Fumento (U.S. Army Airborne, 1978-82) is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a syndicated columnist for the Scripps Howard News Service. Read his additional writing on Gulf War Syndrome and on the military.