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Army educates forces on anthrax vaccine

by Staff Sgt. Marcia Triggs

When the Department of Defense announced resumption of the anthrax vaccine June 28, the Army was ready to take the lead in educating forces on the vaccine's importance.
The Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program Agency is an Army-led organization in charge of providing all of DoD - including all military services -- with educational tools to increase community knowledge on the anthrax vaccine.

"We're not just saying, roll up your sleeves and get a shot," said Col. Randy Randolph, the AVIP director. "We want them to know that the vaccine is safe and effective protection against all forms of anthrax, including inhalation, which is the most deadly form. It also provides round-the-clock protection against the disease." AVIP's responsibility is to provide accessible information for
troops and civilians to learn more about the vaccine.

"What we're going to do is make sure that the information is in front of as many soldiers, civilians and family members as possible," Randolph said. Individuals who are required to get the six-series shot, and the annual booster, should learn about the vaccine at their local level, said Lt. Col. John Grabenstein, deputy director of AVIP. "On our Web site, www.anthrax.mil, there is a commander's tool kit that gives supervisors an overview of the policy, frequently asked questions and answers and a brochure with our toll free number, 1-877-GET-VACC, and Web address on it," Grabenstein said. The AVIP Web site was redesigned to be more user-friendly, and
to also answer the most anticipated questions, Grabenstein said.

However, AVIP's e-mail address and toll-free number can be used if someone needs a customized answer, he said. It's the personal questions that are the most important, he added. Everyone on AVIP's 24-member team is involved in getting troops educated on the vaccine, Randolph said. Not everyone's primary mission is to provide customized responses, but anyone could be asked to do it, he said.

"We care very much about the health and safety of our force and that extends to caring about their families," Randolph said. "We want their families to also know and understand why their spouses are taking the vaccine. We want them to know that we're providing them with an added piece of body armor."

Last summer, there was a shortage of the vaccine, and only individuals in high-threat areas were administered the shots. Supplies of the stockpiled vaccine dwindled when Bioport, the sole manufacturer of the vaccine, failed to win the Food and Drug Administration approval for its renovated facility.

However, the Bioport plant passed the final FDA inspection in January and was licensed to produce more of the vaccine, Randolph said. "Not only has Bioport's anthrax vaccine been FDA approved, it has be documented that the drug is safe and effective in a 200-page report by the National Academy of Sciences Institute of Medicine," Randolph said.

The report said that Bioport's vaccine is "reasonably safe," a term that is used because nothing is perfectly safe, Grabenstein said. Like all adult vaccines, it may cause redness or swelling, but that is a reasonable price to pay to get the protection it gives, he said.

Last fall several U.S. citizens died from the inhalation form of anthrax, because they didn't know that they had been exposed and weren't able to get antibiotics in time, Grabenstein said. Without the biological threat protection that the vaccine provides, an enemy could widely disperse anthrax spores on the battlefield and many troops could die, he said.

Being protected is more important now than ever, the president said. There is still the threat of adversaries using weapons of mass destruction, Randolph said.

When the vaccine was halted last summer, it was done in steps and methodically, which is how it will be restarted, Randolph said. There are people being vaccinated now. However, it's only a small portion of the force, and resumption will be done depending on the threat and mission essential functions, Randolph said.