July 24, 2003

Panel questions HHS on low smallpox vaccinations

By Emily Heil
Congress Daily

Public health officials faced questions from the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Thursday about why fewer health care workers than expected have received smallpox vaccinations, after Congress passed legislation intended to boost vaccine use in preparation for a possible bioterrorism attack.

During a hearing on bioterrorism readiness efforts, lawmakers also said they were close to reaching an agreement on legislation enacting President Bush's "Bioshield" plan to encourage commercial development of countermeasures to biological threats.

Congress passed the "Smallpox Emergency Protection Personnel Act" in April to compensate healthcare workers harmed by side effects of the vaccine, which has been linked to heart problems and other complications. The administration had hoped to vaccinate between 400,000 and 500,000 emergency and health care workers who might respond to a smallpox outbreak.

Democrats argued when the legislation was passed that it should be more generous in order to ensure broader participation in the vaccination effort. As of last Friday, only 38,000 civilian public health workers had been vaccinated.

"The vaccination program is off course and behind schedule," said HELP ranking member Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Kennedy pinned the blame for the delay on the failure of the Health and Human Services Department to release a table of vaccine-related injuries that are eligible for compensation, as required by the legislation.

HELP Chairman Judd Gregg, R-H.H., said he was concerned about the delay and about the slow pace of vaccinations. "Clearly, we haven't gotten the vaccine out as aggressively as we should," Gregg said.

In a letter to HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, Kennedy and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., pressed the agency to complete work on the table. "We are increasingly concerned by the delay," they wrote. "Too many first responders aware of the possibility of side effects are refusing to participate in this very high priority vaccination program."

Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said HHS was close to completing the table, which she said was slowed by both legal and scientific issues, including a newly discovered complication involving heart attacks.

Gerberding said relatively low vaccination rates also were due to the incorrect perception that a smallpox attack is less likely than it was in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks. With war in Afghanistan and Iraq over, people do not think smallpox is an imminent threat, she told the committee.

"We are still operating under the assumption that the smallpox threat is real," she said. "We have to be prepared as a nation for the possibility of a smallpox attack."

Kennedy said he and Gregg were working to break the impasse that has prevented the Bioshield bill from reaching the Senate floor. The bill passed the committee, but has been stymied because of concerns about its funding source. Appropriatiors, including Senate Appropriations ranking member Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., do not want the program to have mandatory funding.

Food and Drug Commissioner Mark McClellan said passage of Bioshield legislation would help speed up research and approval of vaccines. "Enactment of Project Bioshield is a priority for the administration," he said.

July 9, 2003

Marine Gets 7 Months In Jail for Refusing Anthrax Vaccine

By Eric Steinkopff
Freedom ENC

"In a random survey of 1,253 guard and reserve pilots and aircrew, the GAO found 84 percent suffered minor reactions [to the anthrax vaccine] and at least 24 percent major multiple "systemic" reactions, the latter more than 100 times higher than the estimate by the manufacturer."

CAMP LEJEUNE -- A Marine Desert Storm veteran who refused on religious grounds to receive an anthrax vaccination in December was dismissed from the Corps on Tuesday and ordered to serve seven months in prison.

During a general court-martial at New River Air Station, CH-46 Sea Knight pilot 1st Lt. Erick Enz pleaded guilty to disobeying the order of a senior commissioned officer.

Enz, a father of five and described by his superiors as a "natural leader," faced a maximum punishment of five years' confinement, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and dismissal from service.

Although military judge Lt. Col. Martin Sitler sentenced him to seven months confinement, Enz could serve as little as 30 days in the brig based on a pretrial agreement.

Enz, a member of New River's Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 162, Marine Aircraft Group 29, originally pleaded not guilty during a June arraignment and asked for a court-martial with a jury of at least five members.

Enz reversed that decision Tuesday and chose to plead guilty.

Reported adverse reactions to the anthrax vaccine have been the subject of debate since the vaccine's widespread use during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 1990s.

The matter came to the forefront again this year when thousands of troops were ordered to be vaccinated prior to the war with Iraq.

A devout Christian and Bible study group leader, Enz did not feel right about the vaccination, witnesses testified Tuesday. He sought guidance in prayer that led him to seek more information about the vaccine and ultimately refuse the shot, fellow Marines, friends and relatives said during testimony.

In an earlier defense motion pertaining to the case, Military Judge Col. Steven Day ruled that Enz's objection on religious grounds could not be admitted into court as lawful evidence on his behalf.

Department of Defense officials contend that the vaccination is safe, as do military doctors at Camp Lejeune Naval Hospital. But a September 2002 U.S. General Accounting Office report to Congress says that the rate of severity of adverse reactions to the vaccine are considerably greater than advertised.

In a random survey of 1,253 guard and reserve pilots and aircrew, the GAO found 84 percent suffered minor reactions and at least 24 percent major multiple "systemic" reactions, the latter more than 100 times higher than the estimate by the manufacturer.

A Desert Storm veteran, Enz, whose age was not immediately available, was described by superiors and his peers as a natural leader before and after refusing the vaccination.

Nearly every witness for the defense and for the prosecution said that he was well liked, respected and even admired among those in his unit.

He was on a fast track to promotion, trained ahead of many of his peers, and the papers that would move him from a reserve commission to augment him as a regular officer in the Marine Corps remained unsigned at his unit administrative office.

"The people who refuse this are not the dummies or the troublemakers," said former Air Force F-16 pilot retired Lt. Col. John Richardson of Raleigh, a critic of the vaccine. "I get two to three unsolicited calls or e-mails a week -- sometimes as many as five a day -- from kids who are sick. Someone has to stand up and do the right thing."

For more information on Gulf War Illness visit www.ngwrc.org and for more information on reactions from the anthrax vaccination visit www.anthraxvaccine.org.