November 11, 1999

5 Ohio Guard members won't take anthrax shots


COLUMBUS - The Ohio Air National Guard may discharge five members of a Cincinnati-area guard unit because they have refused to take anthrax vaccination shots.

The 123rd Air Control Squadron has been ordered to take the series of shots because up to 100 members of the 130-person squadron are scheduled to be assigned to duty in Kuwait from next month through April. It is the first Ohio guard unit to be ordered in its entirety to take the vaccine.

But Laverne Owens, of Cincinnati, and four male members of the unit, refused a direct order from Lt. Col. Norman Poklar to take the series of six shots over the next 18 months. Annual booster shots are needed to keep the inoculation current.

"I didn't think I needed it because I wasn't being deployed to Kuwait," said Owens, 39, who was asked to take the shot when she reported for weekend duty last month.

"They can't guarantee it will affect me in terms of fertility. All drugs have side effects, and this left me suspicious."

After consulting a doctor and lawyer, Owens said she refused the shot. She has since received a letter from the Ohio guard informing her she will be discharged.

"It's disappointing, because I was enjoying what I was doing," Owens said.

Poklar has referred the guardsmen to Ohio Adjutant General John H. Smith for disciplinary action. The Ohio National Guard's commander-in-chief, Gov. Bob Taft, has also been informed.

"Under the worst case scenario, they would be discharged," Poklar said. He declined to provide their names, citing privacy requirements.

Taft spokesman Orest Holubec said Smith will take the action he deems necessary.

"The governor is confident General Smith will properly enforce procedures," Holubec said. "The governor knows that General Smith has had the vaccination."

Anthrax is an infectious disease that normally affects animals, especially cattle and sheep. Anthrax spores can be produced in a dry form and used as a terrorist weapon when released into the air. When inhaled by humans, anthrax particles can cause severe pneumonia and death within a week. Officials believe Iraq, North Korea and Russia are developing anthrax as a biological weapon.

Some servicemen and women are nervous about the inoculations, blaming the illness known as "Gulf War Syndrome" on drugs, including the anthrax vaccine, administered to counter biological and chemical exposure during the Persian Gulf War.

Studies have revealed no ties between the Gulf War Syndrome and the anthrax inoculations, military officials say. But at least "a couple of hundred" members of the U.S. military have refused to take the vaccinations, said Jim Turner, a Department of Defense spokesman.

"The biggest problem with the vaccine is that you need a lot of shots," said Dr. Steven Gordon, an epidemiologist in the Department of Infectious Diseases at the Cleveland Clinic. "There can be some side effects, but most have been a local reaction."

Side effects can be similar to those experienced with flu and typhoid vaccinations, including soreness where the shot was administered and low-grade fevers.

Within the next year, all members of the Ohio Air National Guard will be required to be immunized with the anthrax vaccine.

By 2003, all members of the Ohio Army National Guard will be inoculated and, by 2005, all U.S. military will be vaccinated, Poklar and other military officials said.

"We are in the real early stages of giving the anthrax vaccine," Poklar said, noting that others could refuse the shots in the future. Upon refusal, a member of the guard is permitted to consult with doctors and a lawyer before any disciplinary action is started, Poklar said.

One other guardsman from the 200th Red Horse Civil Engineering Squadron in the Port Clinton area has also refused to be inoculated. He is in the process of being discharged for that refusal and other discipline problems, said Denise Varner, a guard spokeswoman.