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U.S. military to resume mandatory anthrax inoculations - Associated Press

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON The Defense Department said Monday it will once again begin requiring anthrax vaccinations for troops heading into dangerous regions, reinstating a program that has been challenged repeatedly over possible health risks.

Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said the vaccinations will begin in 30 to 60 days, and will involve troops and civilian Defense Department personnel and contractors who are serving in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Korean Peninsula.

"This is a safe and effective vaccine," Winkenwerder said in a conference call with reporters. He said the move to reinstate the vaccine does not suggest there is any new or elevated threat, but that the possibility of an anthrax attack "very real and it has not gone away."

Opponents of the program promised an immediate challenge. Mark S. Zaid, one of the lawyers who previously sued to stop the mandatory program, said he will file a new lawsuit "as soon as needles start going into arms." Other groups who have opposed the program also condemned the new requirements.

"This is a vaccine that is unproven, unnecessary, and has the potential to jeopardize the health of a service member where little benefit will be derived," Zaid said. "It's always been a public relations program and nothing more."

He questioned why the Pentagon is inoculating troops in the Middle East, when the 2001 anthrax attacks that left five people dead and sickened 17 took place in the United States.

"You and I are at far greater risk than the majority of troops. It's used in letters to journalists and politicians and lawyers, it is not used against troops, " he said. "This is not a battlefield weapon that works."

Winkenwerder said the vaccine has been thoroughly reviewed by the federal Food and Drug Administration and several independent groups and deemed safe.

He said anyone who refuses the vaccine would first be reminded of its importance and safety. Then, if needed, their supervisor would get involved and it would be resolved "like any other refusal to follow a lawful order."

He offered no other details, but said that while significant numbers of troops refused the vaccine in 1998-99, very few have objected to taking it since then. About 10 people were discharged for refusing the vaccine in 2004, but he did not know how many may have refused and gotten other punishments. He was unsure what would happen if a civilian employee or contractor refused the vaccine.