Controversy Surrounds Anthrax Vaccine
Nov. 8, 2001 -- A controversial vaccine with a history of
manufacturing problems is the first line of defense in the war against
weaponized anthrax. Is the anthrax vaccine safe? Is it effective? The answer
depends on whom you ask.
Critics say the vaccine has been proven neither safe nor
effective and may even be the cause of the mysterious group of ailments known
as Gulf War syndrome that afflicts some soldiers. Government officials counter
that there is no scientific evidence to back up that claim. They note that more
than 500,000 U.S. troops have received anthrax vaccinations during the past
three years, with less than 0.5% reporting even minor adverse reactions.
Supporters of the military's suspended program to vaccinate its
2.4 million active duty personnel and reservists say 18 separate studies show
that the anthrax vaccine is safe. But an outspoken opponent of the program
cites several others suggesting that short-term side effects are far more
common than have been reported. Maine doctor Meryl Nass, MD, has studied
anthrax for the past 13 years, and testified before Congress two years ago on
the vaccine's safety.
"There are no data at all on long-term reactions," Nass
tells WebMD. "The only long-term information we have is anecdotal. But the
many, many anecdotal reports I have heard over the years suggest to me that
long-term problems are common in those who receive this vaccine."
John F. Modlin, MD, who leads the government's Advisory
Committee on Immunization Practices, agrees that there are still unanswered
questions about the anthrax vaccine. Last December, the committee issued a
report that, among other things, called for more studies into its safety.
At the time, the group did not recommend the routine
vaccination of emergency workers and other so-called first responders who might
be occupationally exposed in a bioterrorist attack. The committee wrote that,
"at present, the target population for a bioterrorist attack of (anthrax)
cannot be predetermined, and the risk of exposure cannot be
Modlin tells WebMD that the assessment of risk a year ago was
very different from what it is today. He says the committee will revisit its
recommendations on who should receive the vaccine. A CDC spokesperson says that
meeting should take place soon.
"It may be that there is a wider group of people judged to
be at occupational risk who we will recommend get the vaccine," Modlin
says. "I don't want to speculate right now on who that would be. That is
what we have to work out."
This week, the military announced that it will be giving
anthrax vaccinations only to troops considered most at risk of a bioterrorism
attack because its supply of vaccine is limited. And though health officials
recently said criminal investigators, decontamination crews, and others working
closely with anthrax investigations should be vaccinated, it is unclear whether
that is happening.