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Vaccine ruined his health, career, former airman claims

By Gayle S. Putrich
Staff writer

When Staff Sgt. Jason Adkins joined the Air Force, he never expected to end up a pariah. Especially not when he followed orders to the letter.

In 1998, Adkins, a C-5 flight engineer, was transferred to Dover Air Force Base, Del., and ordered to take the anthrax vaccine. Other service members and civilian employees refused the inoculations, but Adkins wasn't one of them.

Between September 1998 and October 2004, he received eight shots ” the initial six-shot regimen and two boosters" which he said subsequently left him with debilitating side effects.

When he tried to speak out about a possible link between his health problems and the vaccine, he said, his chain of command came down on him hard and left a promising 14-year military career in shambles.

An untold number of troops were punished for refusing the anthrax vaccine from 1998 through late 2004 ” the exact number is unknown, but certainly at least hundreds" but Adkins' case is an unusual twist on the legal issues related to the anthrax vaccine.

Adkins has fought back, suing the government in federal court in Delaware to have his records corrected and a letter put in his personnel file stating that his free-speech rights were violated.

Twice, the Defense Department has asked a judge to throw out the case, and twice the request has been denied, most recently in August, said Stephen Neuberger, Adkin's attorney.

Before taking the anthrax vaccine, Adkins was the fitness monitor for his flight squadron, able to bench-press 425 pounds and the picture of health.

"I was the textbook person for the Air Force in the flight suit," he said.

When he was ordered to take the shots, Adkins said he trusted that the military was doing it for his own good. But symptoms crept up on him, he said, as he went through the shot regimen.

His lawsuit says six of his shots were "tainted with squalene," a vaccine additive that can boost immune response but can cause serious side effects and is not approved for human use by the Food and Drug Administration.

In late 2000, the FDA found traces of squalene in five lots of anthrax vaccine delivered to Dover. The Pentagon has denied deliberately adding squalene to any stocks of the vaccine and said its trace presence in the Dover lots was an accident.

In an interview, Adkins said he experienced joint pain, muscle loss, migraines, ringing in his ears, memory loss, severe headaches, body aches, weight loss and an irregular heartbeat.

He was afraid to discuss any of his problems for fear of being permanently grounded. "Flying was my world," he said.

But on the night before a mission in October 2004, he came down with a migraine headache so severe that "he felt his health would endanger the lives of his crew, the mission and the aircraft," court documents state.

Adkins finally went to his flight surgeon, who indeed grounded him. Within hours, documents state, his commanders accused him of dereliction of duty and of faking his migraines so he wouldn't have to fly, banned him from wearing his flight suit and wings and issued him a written reprimand.

"They came down on him, and they came down on him hard, Neuberger said.

Lawyers for the government argued that Adkins has not demonstrated that he was singled out for retaliation and that he has not exhausted all military administrative options. On the question of the violation of Adkin's free speech, they argued that what he said was not a matter of public concern and that the military's need to maintain "the obedience of its enlisted personnel" trumped Adkin's right to free speech.

Defense Department officials declined to comment on the case because it is pending.

The Pentagon's anthrax vaccine Web site, www.anthrax.osd.mil, has an "adverse events" section that instructs those who think they are having a negative reaction to the vaccine to "go to their health care provider as soon as possible."

According to the site, it is the patient's responsibility to ask the health care provider to file a report with the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a Health and Human Services Department database.

The FDA said in late 2005 that from July 1990 through March 2005, VAERS logged 4,279 reports of health problems as a result of the anthrax vaccine, with 390 listed as "serious."

But critics claim the number of adverse events is higher, and even the FDA acknowledges the "passive" nature of VAERS may lead to underreporting. There is no requirement that reactions to the inoculations be reported, to VAERS or anyone else.

The Pentagon has established a national Vaccine Healthcare Centers Network, with a hub based at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

The VHC is designed to act as a "specialized clinical support system for the development and implementation of programs, research and services that enhance vaccine safety, efficacy and acceptability," according to its Web site.

Despite repeated requests, officials at Walter Reed would not make doctors available to Air Force Times to discuss documentation, tracking and rates of adverse reactions to the anthrax vaccine.

The VHC's main Web page - www.vhcinfo.org/index.htm - does not seem to have been updated in almost a year. At press time, it featured a Dec. 19, 2005, announcement that the FDA had issued a final order finding the vaccine to be effective against all forms of anthrax, stating that the vaccination program would remain voluntary until further notice and that the policy was under review by "senior civilian leaders."

Meanwhile, the man whose world revolved around flying now runs a lawn care business in Delaware.

His problems are chronic, and while the symptoms may become manageable over time, Adkins said, they'll never go away. Doctors have told the 30-year-old that he has the hip joints of a 50-year-old.

"You just learn to deal with it," he said.

He also said he lives with deep disappointment at how the military treats those who dare to even suggest they may have been sickened by a vaccine that was supposed to protect them.

"Walk into any military hospital and say "anthrax vaccine," and it's like you pulled a fire alarm," Adkins said. "I was their textbook kid, a golden boy - until I mentioned that word."