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Controversy Surrounds Anthrax Vaccine

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WebMD Health News

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 calculated."

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."

Manufacturing Woes

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.

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