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Troops shun anthrax jab

Richard Norton-Taylor
The Guardian

More than half the armed forces personnel deploying to the Gulf have refused to be vaccinated against anthrax, the Ministry of Defence has disclosed. Though the vaccinations are voluntary, the ministry strongly recommends their use. The low take-up appears to reflect concern among troops about the side effects of the anthrax vaccine.

Military commanders have been warned by the intelligence services to anticipate chemical and biological attacks ordered by Saddam Hussein in the event of an invasion of Iraq.

Of around 16,500 armed forces service personnel offered anthrax jabs, only 8,103 have accepted, according to the junior defence minister, Lewis Moonie.

In a letter to Paul Keetch, the Liberal Democrat defence spokesman, he said anthrax represented a "real threat to our armed forces".

But he added that despite having "no reservations about recommending it", immunisation would remain voluntary "in accordance with long-standing medical practice."

Defence officials admitted yesterday that military operations could be disrupted if only some members of a unit were vaccinated.

Mr Keetch accused the government of sowing confusion and exhibiting a lack of leadership. "Over half our servicemen and women in the Gulf will now not be protected against the possibility of an anthrax attack," he said.

"Soldiers are being asked to judge for themselves the possibility of anthrax infection in the Gulf. If the vaccine is safe and the threat real, why pass the buck to our troops to decide?"

The ministry said yesterday that an internal investigation into how dozens of phials of anthrax vaccine were found washed up on a Dorset beach confirmed that they came from military supplies.

Specialist British army units who would be responsible for attacking or decontaminating suspect chemical and biological sites have been given smallpox vaccine. This carries a greater, though still minimal, risk to the individual than anthrax jabs, according to defence officials. They said that smallpox and anthrax vaccinations were compulsory in the US armed forces.

International relief agencies are unprepared to deal with the consequences of a chemical or biological attack on a civilian population in Iraq, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has warned.