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Anthrax shots made AU troops sick

Australlian News
By Cameron Stewart and Michael McKinnon

THE SAS and other Australian forces sent to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban suffered severe side effects from the anthrax vaccine, according to confidential Defence documents.

The documents also reveal that 97 crew aboard HMAS Darwin in the Gulf last year reported ill after being given the controversial vaccine.

Only a year earlier, the temporary side effects of the anthrax vaccine among troops bound for Afghanistan were so severe that the entire vaccination program for the 1550-strong deployment was suspended for two months.

However, the Howard Government did not disclose this to the troops bound for Iraq last year, who were also required to have the anthrax vaccination.

Defence documents obtained through Freedom of Information laws show that senior officers of the Australian Defence Force have expressed private concern about anthrax vaccine batches on several occasions in recent years.

Asked during a Senate estimates hearing this week if the ADF had any concerns over reactions or side effects, the head of the defence force's health service, Air Commodore Tony Austin, said: "No, we have not."

But an email sent to Commodore Austin on June 3 last year by another senior defence doctor, and obtained by The Weekend Australian, states that 97 sailors fell ill on HMAS Darwin after being given the injection.

"HMAS Darwin has 251 personnel, 97 completed an adverse reaction pro forma - giving an adverse reaction rate of 38 per cent," says the email, written by Colonel Stephan Rudzki.

"I'm not sure what is going on, but there appears to be a problem with the UK anthrax) vaccine."

The federal Government yesterday played down the seriousness of the incident, saying that only one of those 97 sailors who reported ill on HMAS Darwin required medical attention.

But Defence documents reveal that the ADF's problems with batches of the anthrax vaccine date back to November 2001, when the entire anthrax vaccination program for the military deployment to Afghanistan was secretly suspended.

The program was halted after up to 75 per cent of troops - including the elite SAS - fell ill after receiving the injection. The decision to halt the anthrax program was not made public at the time.

Although the severe side effects of the vaccine did not last for more than 48 hours, the then chief of the ADF, Admiral Chris Barrie, was advised that the vaccinations needed to be stopped to ensure the safety of troops in a war zone.

"(Defence) has reported a very high rate of adverse events being suffered by personnel," a briefing note from defence doctors to Admiral Barrie on November 15, 2001, states.

"(Defence) is concerned that such reactions could be operationally significant if the units concerned receive their vaccinations after being deployed.

"All units involved in this vaccination campaign have been told to cease use of the UK anthrax vaccine until further notice."

Internal documents state that the side effects from the vaccine included "swelling and pain severe enough for (troops) not to be able to use the affected arm, and flu-like illness severe enough for some personnel to require sick leave for 24-48 hours".

Defence initially suspected that the problems were caused by a bad batch of anthrax vaccine, but subsequent laboratory tests disproved this, and the cause of the Afghanistan health problems remains a mystery.

Early last year, Australian sailors and troops preparing to deploy for Iraq were told that the vaccine was safe, and that side effects would be no more than that resulting from a tetanus injection. The ADF did not tell troops heading to Iraq about the severity of the temporary health problems experienced by the SAS and others deployed to Afghanistan a year earlier.

Even so, 52 defence men and women refused to take the anthrax injection and were banned from serving in the Iraqi theatre. Of these, 42 were already deployed on navy ships and were flown back to Australia amid much publicity.

The Government has defended its decision to require anthrax injections for troops in Iraq, saying that it had a duty of care to protect them against possible anthrax attacks.

It says the vaccine is safe and that side effects are generally mild, otwithstanding the problems encountered in Afghanistan and on HMAS Darwin in the Gulf.