March 29, 2000

Survey indicates wide variety of reactions to anthrax vaccination

By Kate House, Staff Writer

(Editor's note: The following story about the anthrax vaccination program is based on a survey completed last month by a Dover Air Force Base captain who wishes to remain anonymous. The survey was done without the approval of the Air Force and does not represent the views of the Department of Defense or Dover Air Force Base. Also, because the survey does not include a control group, it cannot be called scientifically valid. However, the Post presents the results because the raw data and comments by service members speak for themselves.)

A survey obtained last week by the Dover Post details a variety of possible reactions to the anthrax vaccine by members of the Dover AFB 9th Airlift Squadron.

The most common complaints were joint/muscle pain, lack of energy, inability to concentrate and short-term memory loss.

Maj. Sonnie Bates, a member of the squadron, is currently appealing punishment, including a $3200 fine, imposed on him for refusing a direct order to take the vaccination. Maj. Bates cited health reasons for his refusal.

According to the survey, at least 32% of those receiving the vaccination in the 9th Airlift Squadron reported a variety of illnesses and reactions.

Of the 252 viable surveys sent to squadron members, 139 were completed and returned. Eleven surveys were returned by the postmaster and two respondents had not begun the vaccinations.

Of the 139 respondents, 81 (58%) had "probable systemic reactions," according to thes survey.

These included:

* 57 reports of joint and/or muscle pain.

* 41 reports of loss of energy/constant tiredness.

* 36 reports of reduced concentration.

* 34 reports of short-term memory loss.

* 24 reports of difficulty sleeping.

Other reactions included recurring headaches, itchy skin, rashes and even severe hair loss.

Those surveyed included descriptions of their symptoms.

The following is a sampling of their comments:

* "Joint pain four days after first shot, and spread to other joints as the series continued. I now have pain in my wrists, both knees to the point of being on crutches for 3 days and I must ice them a couple times a week....I workout and eat well but am exhausted."

* "I definitely have vertigo, light-headedness and balance problems."

* "Blood work 2 months prior to vaccination shows normal, but one month after, I switched to ANA+. I have been diagnosed with autoimmune thyroiditis. I will require thyroid pills for life and a blood test every 6 months."

* "There are no logical explanations for a rash that festers, oozes, and lasts for over 2 weeks when I have never had problems with rashes before."

* "The most severe and frustrating [symptom] is the memory loss. I will be working at my desk, need to get something, start down the hall, get halfway there and not know where I'm going or what I wanted to do, etc."

* "I used to get one cold per year. Since I had the shots I've had 8-10 bad colds. One cold got so bad they thought I had spinal meningitis and I had to get a spinal tap."

* [I have] difficulty studying, reading, or driving distances greater than 20 miles; I have to take a break and/or drink coffee or soda."

* "After driving in a car for one hour, I need to walk to relieve the pain."

* "I now feel like I am always tired, lacking energy to do simple things like exercise, walk my dog, yard work, etc. Also having trouble with memory. Can't remember things from one day to the next."

* "In general, since initiating the anthrax, I have been "weaker" and more ill than any other period in my life. I am now routinely more ill, nauseous and lethargic with little to no physical endurance."

"Making the very conservative assumption that the 113 people who did not respond to the survey did not experience any symptoms, then the systemic reaction rate for the 9th AS using the DoD definition could be upwards of 32%," the author said in the data analysis.

The author also said that four people known to have had illnesses following anthrax vaccinations did not respond to the survey.

These include one case each of the following: tuberculosis with bone lesions; Chronic Fatigue Syndrome with chronic bone joint pain; recurring seizures; and Guilliane-Barre's Syndrome, in which the patient is currently paralyzed from the neck down.

Twenty-three reported missing for than one full day of work and ten still have not been returned to active duty.

Of the 81 who reported symptoms, 41 sought treatment at the flight surgeon's clinic and 17 filled out Vaccine Adverse Reaction Reporting System (VAERS) reports.

Those seeking treatment were not always satisfied.

*"What a joke. The doc said I had tennis elbow. Tennis elbow! This in my left arm and I am right-handed."

* "Flight surgeon did a thorough profile and could find no cause. I cannot attribute this to anthrax because it didn't start after the first shot. But I cannot attribute it to anything else either."

* "I mentioned the problem to Dr. - during my annual flight physical and he did not say anything. He just ignored what I said. When I mentioned the word anthrax, he just changed the subject."

People who had not sought treatment at the clinic also had comments.

* "I realize that I should probably report these things, but I can't see jeopardizing my flying career over something that can probably be written off by the doc's as either something in my head or some other cause other than anthrax-even though it all points to it."

* "I do not trust the flight surgeon's office to have anything more than the common cold looked at. They do not have our best interests at hand."

Some respondents said they were not told about VAERS reports.

"That's the problem," said one respondent. "No one knew what a VAERS report was or the problems associated with the shots. If you don't know what a VAERS report is, then you won't fill one out."

Base: Survey was unofficial;

medical officials can't find pattern

Maj. Frank Smolinsky, a spokesperson in media relations at DAFB, said any base survey must be approved at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas. This survey was done unofficially and not approved at Randolph.

Therefore, said Smolinsky, the survey is not considered by the Air Force to be scientifically sound. He said there have been over 1700 base personnel who have received the vaccine. Of those, 82 have filled out VAERS reports

"Nevertheless," he said, "our medical group has reviewed the data provided by this informal survey and has not been able to demonstrate a pattern in the illnesses reported, or that the symptoms reported are linked to the anthrax vaccine."

He said the base has "a normal, healthy population."

In response to survey results that would indicate otherwise, Smolinsky said that goes back to the validity of the survey. While the base appreciates the author's concern, he said, the medical staff has ways to track data which includes using control groups.

Additionally, he said, when a person becomes ill, they look for reasons. It's a natural reaction, he said, for recently inoculated persons to wonder if the vaccine could be a factor.

Further, he said, the health and welfare of base personnel is a priority to the leadership staff and medical professionals.

"And we are always focused on providing the highest level of medical care," he said.