NBC Weapons: Mandatory Anthrax Vaccinations Restored

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NUCLEAR, BIOLOGICAL AND CHEMICAL WEAPONS

October 25, 2006: The U.S. Department of Defense will resume mandatory anthrax vaccinations by the end of the year. Over 200,000 military personnel (and some contractors and Department of Defense civilians) will be vaccinated. Most of these will be members of biological weapon defense units, or those serving in the Middle East or Korea. Court challenges to such vaccinations had caused the Department of Defense to fall back on voluntary compliance. But only about half the people who needed the vaccinations got them voluntarily. So, after slogging through the courts for over a year, the mandatory vaccinations were restored.

Giving anthrax and smallpox vaccinations to troops caused some controversy, and a court injunction, despite the fact that thousands of medical and agricultural workers regularly get anthrax vaccinations, and that until the 1970s, nearly everyone was vaccinated for smallpox. The controversy arose from the fact that, with any vaccination, a small percentage (usually a fraction of one percent) of those receiving the vaccination will get sick. A few people will even die. But when your chance of exposure to much more lethal diseases like anthrax and smallpox is high, the small vaccination risk is considered a reasonable trade off. The Department of Defense vaccination program is to protect troops against the possible terrorist use of biological weapons. The problem here is that there is no agreement on how likely that is to happen. Thus the real risk of adverse reaction to a vaccination looms larger than the threat of catching the disease itself. Out of 750,000 troops originally vaccinated for anthrax, about 30 refused, and were all punished for disobeying orders. It was from this group that the legal actions originated. The scientific community finally convinced the courts that giving the troops anthrax vaccinations was a safe and sound thing to do.

Another 625,000 troops have been vaccinated for smallpox, with no refusals. This is apparently due to the fact that many older troops had been vaccinated once before, when they were children, with no ill effect. Until the late 1970s, nearly everyone was vaccinated for smallpox, a disease that kills about 30 percent of its victims. Anthrax is very rare, only showing up among people who work with farm animals, or work in rural areas. Most of them get anthrax on their skin, which is rarely fatal, and easy to cure. The inhaled version is rare in the wild, and fatal more than half the time. Military grade anthrax would mostly be inhaled, and thus could be more devastating than smallpox. But smallpox is easier to spread, it is passed it on by simply breathing. However, it is considered unlikely that a terrorist organization would use smallpox, because it would probably quickly get back to impoverished Islamic countries, where treatment and vaccination would be much less likely. Thus, Islamic terrorists using smallpox would end up killing far more Moslems than Christians. But, then, terrorists have never been noted for their heavy use of logic.

 


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