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Vaccinations probably did not cause pneumonia cases, Army official Says

By David Ruppe
Global Security Newswire

Anthrax vaccinations are not considered to be probable causes of 18 serious pneumonia cases involving U.S. Army personnel that were stationed in Southwest Asia, a senior Army medical official said Monday.

"At this point in the review, vaccinations are considered unlikely to be a factor in this series of cases," Col. John Grabenstein, deputy director of the Army's Military Vaccine Agency, said in an e-mailed statement responding to questions from Global Security Newswire.

Army reports say that since March 1, about 100 military personnel in the region have shown pneumonia-like symptoms, and 18 - more than half in Iraq - have become seriously ill, requiring ventilator support. Two have died.

Epidemiological consultation teams dispatched by the Army surgeon general to the region and to Germany are investigating the possible causes or contributing factors to the illnesses, including whether the anthrax or smallpox vaccines played a role.

Grabenstein stated, though, that the anthrax vaccine was probably not to blame for several reasons, including: the cases are not clustered in time around vaccinations, the clusters of pneumonia cases have not occurred among other vaccinated people elsewhere, and worldwide hospitalization data shows that pneumonia occurs no more often in anthrax-vaccinated people than in unvaccinated people.

"It's important to realize," he added, "that in over 200 years of giving vaccinations, no vaccine has ever been shown to cause pneumonia. While unusual cases need to be evaluated on their own merits, no vaccination has been scientifically linked to pneumonia in a cause-and-effect way."

Other Causes Ruled Unlikely

A Defense Department spokesman earlier this month said no signs have been found that biological or chemical weapons, including anthrax and smallpox agents, played a role in the illnesses.

In a statement Monday, the Office of the Army Surgeon General also ruled out several other potential causes for the illnesses and said the investigation ultimately may turn up no single cause for the 18 pneumonia cases that are currently under investigation.

"Currently, we have identified no infectious agent common to all of the cases. Additionally, there is no evidence that any of the 18 serious pneumonia cases under review have been caused by exposure to chemical or biological weapons, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) or environmental toxins," it said.

The office also said the number of pneumonia cases, including fatalities, is in line with previous annual numbers for Army personnel.

Independent Investigation Sought

Last week, United Press International reported an allegation lodged by Moses Lacy, father of Army Spc. Rachael Lacy, who reportedly died after she displayed symptoms of pneumonia. "The common denominator (in the mysterious deaths) is smallpox and anthrax vaccinations," Moses Lacy said. "The government is covering this up and it is a doggone shame," he said.

Army officials said Rachael Lacy's case is not included in the regional investigation because she was not in Iraq or Southwest Asia.

The family of one of the two soldiers whose deaths are included in the investigation recently wrote Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld urging him to transfer the investigation's direction to the civilian Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention currently are "collaborating" with the epidemiological teams in their investigations, according to the Office of the Army Surgeon General's statement.

The letter, from the family of Army Spc. Josh Neusche, questioned whether information on the pneumonia cases was being withheld.

"We as a family are concerned that we are not being told the truth," the letter says.

The family requested access to medical and vaccine records, as well as numerous other pieces of information.

The parents of another soldier, Spc. Zeferino Colunga, who died in Germany after a reported diagnosis of leukemia, wrote an almost identical letter.

In a statement, Army officials said Colunga's "death was unrelated to the recent cases of pneumonia in Southwest Asia."

Vaccine Possibly Linked to Two Previous Cases

A study of the effects of the anthrax vaccine used on U.S. forces published in February 2002 by a civilian committee of experts did find that the anthrax vaccine might have caused two earlier pneumonia cases.

That study used data from 602 reports of "adverse events" suspected of being triggered by the vaccine given to nearly 400,000 military personnel. The vaccine may have caused six medically serious events, including the pneumonia cases, it said.

The analysis concluded, though, that the number of serious events was not large or unusual.

"At this time, ongoing evaluation of [adverse events] reports does not suggest a high frequency or unusual pattern of serious or other medically important [adverse events]," the study said.

In yesterday's statement, the Office of the Army Surgeon General, also suggested that the numbers of pneumonia cases and resulting fatalities in the region are not out of line with historical data.

"Army-wide, pneumonia serious enough to warrant hospitalization occurs in about 400 to 500 soldiers per year. Based on this historical data, the approximately 100 total cases of pneumonia in CENTCOM [the Central Command, which operates in Southwest Asia] since March 1 do not exceed expectations.

"Death from pneumonia in a young, otherwise healthy population is rare, but it does occur: from 1998 through 2002, 17 soldiers died from pneumonia or from complications of pneumonia," it said.

The Army would not provide statistical information, including data showing whether any of the soldiers who developed pneumonia had recently been given smallpox or anthrax vaccinations, saying such data was still under review.

The epidemiological teams "are currently validating the vaccination records; the long period between vaccination and admission is one of the factors that make vaccination unlikely to be a cause," said Lyn Kukral, a spokeswoman for the surgeon general and the Army Medical Command.