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Bill Would Ease Rules On Military Vaccines

Hartford Courant
By THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, Courant Staff Writer

U.S. Rep. Christopher Shays is proposing a bill that would exempt service members from the punishments they received for refusing to take the controversial anthrax vaccine whose legality is under challenge in federal court.

"The rationale for administering these vaccines should be based on what we know about the threat," Shays, R-4th District, said Wednesday. "Until we have modern, safer, and proven effective countermeasures [vaccines], administering mandatory vaccinations for an unproven threat is counterproductive."

State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal agrees.

"I am strongly supportive of the bill's objectives and general provisions," said Blumenthal who has been critical of the vaccine's use. "The federal government should be held to a much higher standard when it administers these vaccines so that there is stronger assurance that they are safe and effective."

James Turner, a spokesman for the Department of Defense, did not comment on the bill Wednesday, but in the past, he and others in the department have insisted the anthrax vaccine is necessary, safe, effective and federally licensed. The department needs to make the vaccine mandatory to protect all troops in the field from attack, say defense officials.

Since administration of the vaccinations began six years ago, nearly 500 active-duty service members have refused the vaccine and more than 100 of them have been court-martialed, according to data filed in federal court earlier this year. About 500 to 1,000 pilots and flight crew members have retired or transferred from the Air National Guard or reserves rather than take the vaccine, government statistics show. On average, a pilot with nine years of experience cost the government about $6 million to train, according to a federal estimate.

The far-reaching bill would additionally create a national research center to focus on the health of service members deployed overseas.

Shays, the Stamford Republican, has for almost a decade been involved in Congressional investigations of the adverse effects of the anthrax vaccine and the so-called Gulf War illnesses reported by thousands of veterans.

Similar illnesses have been reported by thousands more U.S. service members who fought in Afghanistan and the present war in Iraq. Allied troops from Britain, Canada, Australia, and other nations fighting in those wars have also become ill, reportedly as a result of wartime exposures, as have Iraqi and Afghan civilians and soldiers.

The bill's other proposed requirements include:

* Voluntary instead of mandatory administration of the anthrax or smallpox vaccines to service members who agree after they have been informed of the risks of taking those vaccines.

* A defense department annual assessment for Congress of the actual biological threat of the future terrorist or enemy use of anthrax spores or the smallpox virus.

* An ongoing U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' assessment of the adverse health effects of the two vaccines reported by members, and former members, of the armed forces.

* A separate VA ongoing assessment of the relationship, if any, between those adverse health effects and the vaccines.

In May, U.S. District Court Judge Emmet G. Sullivan in Washington, D.C., commenting on a lawsuit brought by service members against the mandatory use of the anthrax vaccine, said he has significant doubt about the vaccine's safety and effectiveness. His final ruling is expected later this fall.

Since President George W. Bush mandated the smallpox vaccination for service members, in late January, the defense department claims the adverse reaction rate has been minimal. Some service members are reluctant to take it because of the risk of adverse effects.