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Pentagon says vaccine may have killed US soldier

By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A panel of armed forces medical experts has found that vaccines required by the military may have killed a 26-year-old Army soldier last year, the Pentagon said on Thursday.

Pfc. Christopher "Justin" Abston died on December 4 in his barracks room at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, 16 days after getting smallpox and injectable influenza vaccines, officials said. The panel concluded it was "possible" the vaccines were the cause of death, the Pentagon said in a statement.

An autopsy showed Abston suffered from an inflammation of the heart muscle, or myocarditis, a condition the smallpox vaccine is known to cause, the Pentagon said.

"The expert panel cautioned that the findings pointing to vaccinations were neither probable nor unlikely, but they do suggest the possibility that the vaccines may have caused Abston's death," according to the statement.

Some U.S. troops have expressed concern about the safety of vaccines required by the military. A small number who have refused to get the shots have been thrown out of the military.

In November 2003, the Pentagon said medical experts found the death of an Army combat medic, Spc. Rachel Lacy, 22, in April 2003 may have been caused by a combination of vaccinations required by the Pentagon, including those for anthrax and smallpox.

The military requires troops serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea and in some homeland defense missions to get smallpox vaccinations. The Pentagon describes the shots as an important "force protection" measure in an era when potential enemies may be armed with biological weapons.

Of the million U.S. military personnel given the smallpox vaccine since 2002, 120 were known to have developed myocarditis or similar conditions, but none had died, the Pentagon said.

The Defense Department screens everyone who will get smallpox shots, and as a result about 8 percent are excluded due to medical concerns.