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Woman says vaccines led to illness

By Ryan Dostalek, Leader-Telegram staff

When UW-Eau Claire student Nicole Lillis joined the U.S. Army in January 2001, she knew risks were involved. Now, after being out of the service for nearly four years, the effects of her military service still resonate, and the sacrifices she was prepared to make are not the ones she currently battles.

Lillis, 29, an Eau Claire native, suffers from symptoms commonly associated with autoimmune disorders, including constant joint, neck and back pain. She and her doctor at the Madison Veterans Affairs Hospital believe her symptoms are linked to vaccines she took during basic training. Leading researchers in the field also believe there is a connection between vaccines and autoimmune disorders. However, the U.S. government emphatically denies the claims.

Lillis joined the U.S. Army, originally enlisting in the airborne program. She reported to Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., for basic training, where she said she and the other recruits received 12 vaccines, one of which she later found to be an experimental pneumonia vaccine, according to a consent form she found in her medical records.

She said she never saw the form at the time she received the vaccines.

Complications began about two months into training, when she began having extreme pelvis and joint pain. She said she passed the pain off as being a result of the grueling training.

"I remember being so tired and in so much pain, but I just figured that it all had to do with the physical demand of basic training," she said. "So, I just pushed through it."

When Lillis completed basic training, a stress fracture in her pelvis barred her from airborne training. She went into military police training to complement the criminal justice degree she was working on at UW-Eau Claire.

When she returned to UW-Eau Claire in 2006, she changed her major to mass communications. She expects to graduate in 2009.

After she completed basic training and military police training in May 2001, a drill sergeant gave her some advice. "My drill sergeant looked me in the eye and said, 'The Army will never be worth your health,' " she said. "I will never forget that."

After her training at Fort Leonard Wood, the Army stationed her at Fort Hood, Texas, where she worked as a patrol officer and then as a 911 dispatcher. That was where the complications got worse, she said, making note of one night when she went to the bathroom, collapsed and began vomiting continually.

Last summer, she had a similar vomiting spell.

A doctor at Fort Hood diagnosed her with bursitis, which is characterized by painful joint inflammation. Military doctors then later diagnosed her with fibromayalgia in January 2002 - leading to her honorable discharge in May 2003.

When Lillis returned to Wisconsin in January 2006, she went to the VA hospital in Tomah, where she was referred to a doctor at the Madison VA hospital. He diagnosed Lillis as being on the borderline for have lupus, an autoimmune disorder, and she said he told her there was no doubt the "vaccines kicked my immune system into overdrive."

A representative from the Military Vaccine Agency, the Department of Defense body that oversees military vaccine policies, refused to give his name because of department protocol. He said protecting soldier health is the No. 1 priority of the agency and the department and said all vaccines administered are "safe and effective."

"Absolutely all of the vaccines are FDA approved," he said. "There have never been experimental vaccines given to any service members."

Lillis' complaints aren't the first of their kind. A handful of sick soldiers filed a lawsuit, Doe v. Rumsfeld, in which courts favored the soldiers and issued an injunction halting the Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program, a mandated military program. AVIP started in 1998, and the injunction was served in December of 2003. The Defense Department resumed the program in February of this year.

In 1994, vaccine researcher and immunologist Pamela Asa discovered a link existed between the anthrax vaccine administered to troops and autoimmune disorders, including symptoms of what doctors later called Gulf War Syndrome, according to studies published in 1999 and 2001. The Food and Drug Administration confirmed the study and considered it when issuing the 2003 injunction.

Asa, along with a colleague at Tulane University in New Orleans, discovered the presence of squalene in six lots of anthrax vaccines given to soldiers who began experiencing symptoms associated with autoimmune disorders. Squalene, she said, is an adjuvant, an oil-based chemical added to increase the effectiveness of the vaccine. However, when introduced into the human body, it has negative effects, according to Asa's research.

"I can't put into words the look of horror on (the soldiers') faces and how difficult it was to tell them that the country and the government they were willing to die for had done this to them," Asa said.

"It makes me sick to tell these kids they are positive for anti-squalene antibodies," Asa said, adding that anti-squalene antibodies become present in the body to fight off the squalene.

Lillis is unsure if she received the anthrax vaccine because her vaccination records were not included with her medical files after she was discharged.

Lillis and Asa have been trying to get the government to acknowledge the harmful effects of vaccines on soldiers, but both said they have had little luck.

"I've been fighting this since 1994," Asa said. "And I've been receiving hell for it the entire time."

Despite the government's response, Lillis and Asa said they will continue fighting for acknowledgement and change in the government.

"It's just something that I live with," Lillis said, now six years after the symptoms began. "I don't let it get me down. I'm so stubborn, and I will fight this until the end."

Dostalek can be reached at 833-9203 or ryan.dostalek@ecpc.com.