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Panel OKs Anthrax Shots for First Responders

Volume 322, Number 5902, Issue of 31 October 2008
©2008 by The American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Panel OKs Anthrax Shots for First Responders

A U.S. scientific panel thinks that police, firefighters, people who work with hazardous materials, and others running the risk of exposure to an anthrax infection may be offered the vaccine against the fatal disease. That suggestion, from an advisory panel to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is a departure from current policies.

Anthrax vaccination is compulsory for military personnel serving in risk areas overseas. Although most experts believe the vaccine--six shots over a period of 18 months--is safe, some service members believe it has made them ill, and some have filed lawsuits. Relying on new safety data, CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices agreed on 22 October that first-responder agencies "may choose to offer" their staff the vaccines on a voluntary basis--but it stopped short of recommending they do so.

That caution reflects the panel's inability to assess the risk of future attacks, says the committee's chair, Dale Morse, who adds that the job site and duties affect a worker's risk of contracting anthrax as well. "We believe it's very low, but we can't say it's zero," Morse says. Meryl Nass, an internist at Mount Desert Island Hospital in Bar Harbor, Maine, who strongly opposes the military program, believes the recommendations will put more people at risk for adverse events. No first responders became infected during the 2001 anthrax letter attacks, which killed five people.