November 20, 2003

Vaccines May Have Killed Army Medic

Associated Press

WASHINGTON - Vaccinations may have caused the death of an Army medic by triggering a flare up in a disease she was unaware she had, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

Two study panels found no evidence that the military screening program could have prevented the death of 22-year-old Army reservist Spc. Rachael A. Lacy, though officials will review the practice of giving simultaneous vaccinations, the Defense Department said.

Lacy received vaccinations for anthrax, smallpox, typhoid, hepatitis B and measles-mumps-rubella on March 2 at Fort McCoy, Wis., as she mobilized for active duty overseas. It is common both inside and outside the military to give simultaneous shots, though most people don't get the smallpox and anthrax vaccines.

The suburban Chicago woman died a month later with symptoms like those found in patients with lupus, an autoimmune disease, the Pentagon said in a statement.

Lacy's father, Moses Lacy, said he hopes the Pentagon's new conclusions will help prevent other vaccine-related deaths in the military, even if the news won't ease his pain or bring his daughter back.

Lacy said he suspected all along that vaccines caused his daughter's death. While he initially accused the Pentagon of a cover-up, he said the new conclusions show the military is taking the issue seriously.

"They should at least look more closely into problems associated with vaccines as it relates to people having adverse reactions," said Lacy, 52, of Lynwood, Ill.

The two panels of civilian doctors and academics - drawn from advisory committees that existed before Lacy's death - studied Lacy's case and those of three other defense employees who fell ill.

The panels concluded that the other people's illnesses were unrelated to the vaccinations.

But in Lacy's case, they found the vaccinations "may have triggered" a flare in lupus, which neither she nor her doctors knew she had, the Pentagon said. She had never shown symptoms, but a later analysis of blood samples stored in the military's repository found she had some markers or abnormalities associated with the disease, a defense official said.

Among the vaccines she received, the one for smallpox immediately drew suspicion in the health community because some lupus patients suffer side effects from vaccines made of live virus, as smallpox is.

However, officials said that because Lacy had the combination of shots, they were unable to establish or reject any role smallpox might have played in her death.

The two panels were convened at the Pentagon's request under the Health and Human Services Department. One reported last week that it tended to think, but couldn't conclusively prove, the vaccinations caused Lacy's death.

Members on the second panel differed, with three members saying it was "possible" the vaccinations were the cause and two saying it was "probable."

More than 900,000 service members have received the anthrax shot and more than 500,000 the smallpox shot - among the millions of doses of vaccines administered annually to protect troops against disease and bioterror threats.

"Vaccinations are important tools to keep our service members protected and healthy," Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said in the statement Wednesday.

He added that "though it appears no screening procedure could have averted her illness, we have asked our advisory panel to evaluate the practice of simultaneous vaccinations."

Col. John Grabenstein of the Army Surgeon General's Office said death from vaccination is "extraordinarily rare" among service members. "The military has had one possible case in the last few years. That involved a yellow fever vaccine."

Lacy, of Lynwood, Ill., was a nursing student before being called to active duty with the 452nd Combat Support Hospital of Milwaukee.

"We extend our sympathy to the Lacy family and our appreciation for her service," Winkenwerder said. "Specialist Lacy was a valuable member of her unit. She died serving her country."