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Chicago attorney wants anthrax vaccines stopped

Medill News Service

In 2000, an Air Force captain stationed in Oklahoma received three anthrax vaccinations.

She soon began experiencing numbness and tingling in her arm, hand and fingers. When she called the medical center, she was told the problems would go away. Months later, however, she had trouble using stairs and riding a bicycle. She said she was "generally clumsy" and her speech was slurred and slowed. After undergoing medical tests, her doctor said her cerebellum, which controls motor functions, had shrunk and the damage was permanent.

In her early 30s, the woman -- who asked not to be identified -- said she never had any health problems before the vaccinations. Though she admits there is no proof her condition resulted from the anthrax vaccine, she said there is no other explanation. Her neurologists have found no other logical cause either.

Still enlisted, she fears she'll be discharged within the year because of her condition.

"I've hardly told anyone," the woman said. "I only broke down and told my parents when I needed a driver to and from the spinal tap a year ago."

The captain is one of many military service people -- more than 1,000 -- who attribute their deteriorating health to the anthrax vaccine, according to Chicago attorney John Michels. Michels, a former Air Force general, has been investigating the military's use of the anthrax vaccine for six years.

In 2003, Michels filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to ban mandatory anthrax vaccinations for service people.

The lawsuit also accuses the FDA of failing to prove the vaccine is safe.

Last October, U.S. District Judge Emmett Sullivan in Washington, D.C. issued an order to stop mandatary vaccinations because the vaccine was improperly licensed by the FDA. The judge allowed it to be used only in two instances: with voluntary consent or if President Bush ordered it.

Sullivan also had doubts about the vaccine's safety and sent it back to the FDA for review.

An FDA spokeswoman said the vaccine is "fully licensed, safe and effective," but the judge sent it back because the FDA had not proven the vaccine was sufficiently effective in cases of inhalation anthrax.

The government appealed the decision and is expected to file briefs with a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. in May.

Michels said he still has serious doubts about the vaccine's safety even if the FDA re-approves it and worries the defense department will be able to resume inoculating military personnel.

The vaccination, Anthrax Vaccine Adsorbed, was licensed in 1970 to protect against Bacillus anthracis, an infectious disease that most commonly occurs in cattle, sheep and other herbivores. In 1998, the government started the anthrax vaccine immunization program, requiring all military to be inoculated.

By 2001, more than 2.1 million doses had been administered, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Meryl Nass, of Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor, Maine, who spent 16 years studying the anthrax vaccine, said it is not safe.

"No one is allowed to do anthrax research on any of the young people who are getting the shots now," she said. "The only folks who are allowed to look at (those receiving the vaccine) are the Army folks."

Though Nass admits that no vaccine is 100 percent safe, she questions the military's and FDA's decisions to use the anthrax vaccine. After publishing an article saying the vaccine was a possible contributor to Gulf War syndrome, she began receiving e-mails from service people who said they became sick from it.

At first, Nass said, she thought it was coincidence. But "after 50 to 100 people tell you they have the same symptoms, I was thinking there was something to it."
In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences commissioned a report to assess the safety and efficacy of the anthrax vaccine.

The report concluded that the vaccine is "reasonably safe" and there was "no evidence that vaccine recipients face an increased risk of experiencing life-threatening or permanently disabling adverse events."

But Nass said the report ignored several studies that link the vaccine to Gulf War syndrome.

"The (report) says it should be effective against all known strains of anthrax," Nass said. "That is a ridiculous claim to make. In all animals and people, no matter what vaccine you use, it's not effective against all strains.

They made a claim that is completely unsupportable by science. They provided the government with what it wanted to support its policies."