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DoD's medical credibility disputed

American Health Line

Dozens of protesters demonstrated Saturday outside Dover Air Force Base, throwing their support to Maj. Sonnie Bates, the pilot who refused to take a mandatory series of injections against anthrax.

Bates could face a court-martial for refusing to take the vaccine. Protesters carried signs that read: "Free Major Bates," and "My husband will take a bullet for America but not the Anthrax vaccine." Demonstrator Gloria Webb said, "The people who refuse this vaccine are being raped of the same civil rights they fight to protect." Maj. Frank Smolinsky, base spokesperson, said, "These people had a right to express themselves. Freedom of speech is one of the things the military fights to protect" (Washington Post, 1/30).

The roots of the current anthrax dispute "lie in the Defense Department's long term loss of medical credibility with the population it serves," writes James Terry Scott, director of national security programs at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and a retired lieutenant general in the U.S. Army, in the Washington Post. While he says that his own experience was "positive," the "level of trust began to deteriorate with the Defense Department's failure to come to grips with reports of the toxic effects of Agent Orange." This was followed by "perceived reluctance to resolve the complex questions raised by Gulf War syndrome," including "its apparent inability to refuse the assertion that at least some of the reported medical problems were caused by hastily conceived combinations of medicines administered to soldiers to protect them from the potential effects of Saddam Hussein's biological and chemical weapons."

Military personnel's confidence in the system has further deteriorated because many families "feel vulnerable as they watch the overstretched military medical system crumble from chronic underfunding" and many "doubt that adequate military medical care will be there for them and their families in the future."

In point-counterpoint style in the Baltimore Sun, former Connecticut Air National Guard pilots Thomas Rempfer and Russell Dingle, who refused to be inoculated, and Charles Cragin, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, face off on the use of the anthrax vaccine. Rempfer and Dingle argue that the Defense Department's claims of the vaccine's safety "are inconsistent with statements by department personnel, medical literature, congressional oversight and FDA inspections."

They cite sources, including Army Surgeon General Ronald Blanck, who stated in 1994 that the "anthrax vaccine should continue to be considered as a potential cause for undiagnosed illness in Persian Gulf military personnel" and Col. Arthur Freidlander, who concluded that the anthrax vaccine "is unsatisfactory," as evidence.

They argue, "Protecting our armed forces from unnecessary risks includes protecting the troops from unsafe military medical policies that are shaky under established medical and legal standards. The troops deserve better than expedient and misguided protection efforts, promoted through the hyping of threats and the cliche of 'good order and discipline.' It would be irresponsible not to suspend this program immediately pending the unbiased review" (Rempfer/Dingle, 1/30). Rempfer also wrote an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post.

Cragin responds that the anthrax vaccine is the "best chance for survival" among those exposed to the chemical and touts the vaccine's safety, writing that it has "an excellent safety record since it was licensed and approved by the FDA in 1970." Cragin writes that what the military is doing "is no different from what we have always tried to do: We are taking prudent measures to protect the armed forces." Further, he maintains that the military is "working tirelessly to alleviate [concerns about the vaccine] through an intensive educational and leadership outreach effort." He concludes, "If we were to deny our military personnel protection from anthrax, we would be denying them the protection they need to undertake the critical missions they are called on to perform. ... In short, we have an obligation to give our personnel the best protection available from all anticipated threats - anthrax is one of those threats; and the vaccine offers safe and effective protection" (Cragin, 1/30).