Study: Reservists Quit Over Anthrax


Friday, October 13th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


WASHINGTON (AP) — Stepping up pressure against the Pentagon's mandatory anthrax vaccination program, a congressional study says the shots have caused many National Guard and reserve pilots to quit and may prompt hundreds more to leave.

Former and current reserve officers bolstered the study by telling Congress on Wednesday the program threatens global U.S. military readiness, but Defense Department witnesses insisted rebellion against the vaccination program is exaggerated.

The emotional hearing included accusations from House Government Reform Committee chairman Dan Burton that military officers are endangering troops with the shots designed to protect against anthrax spores and lying about the impact of the program on morale, retention and recruitment.

``The Defense Department has insulted the honor and integrity of anyone who has dared question the anthrax vaccine program,'' Burton, R-Ind., said.

Military officers at the hearing denied Burton's assertions.

``While there have been individual cases of reserve component members refusing the vaccination, documented losses from such cases are a very small minority,'' said Maj. Gen. Randall West, Pentagon senior adviser on anthrax. He told the committee that four of six reserve units show increased readiness over past years. There are no indications that concern over the anthrax vaccine was a factor in the decreased readiness of the other two, he said.

Anthrax is a disease that typically afflicts animals, especially sheep and cattle. When inhaled, dry anthrax spores, which can be put into weapons, can cause death in humans. The U.S. vaccine, licensed by the Food and Drug Administration in 1970, is given in a series of six shots over 18 months plus an annual booster. The Department of Defense had ordered all 2.4 million active and reserve personnel to be inoculated.

Some officers began questioning the safety and effectiveness of the shot more than a year ago after reports of adverse reactions.

Burton unveiled preliminary results of a General Accounting Office report he ordered, showing that 25 percent of Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves pilots and crew who left their units cited the anthrax vaccine as the No. 1 factor in their decision. No other factor ranked higher, it said.

Additionally, 18 percent of those left in the units said they planned to leave in the next six months, with the vaccine also the leading factor cited.

The survey said that 86 percent of respondents taking the vaccine reported ``experiencing some type of local or systemic reactions,'' such as a knot in the arm or joint pain.

The agency GAO sent out 1,253 questionnaires to guard and reserve pilots and technical crew members, getting requested anonymous responses from two-thirds.

West said the GAO survey focused exclusively on anthrax, while the military feels surveys of why people leave are more reliable if they do not mention anthrax and simply ask for reasons.

He said guard and reserve strength and readiness is unaffected by the anthrax program, which had to be cut back because of a vaccine shortage.

Commercial pilot Tom Heemstra, who complained in congressional testimony a year ago about having to take the anthrax vaccine as a squadron commander in the Indiana Air National Guard, estimated that 2,100 pilots from the Air National Guard and Air Force Reserves would be lost if the vaccination program continues.

Heemstra, of Lexington, Ky., who said he was forced to retire for his refusal, said anthrax has caused more than 200 resignations so far at several bases around the country. He provided the House Government Reform Committee with a list of coded names of some pilots who have left, saying military authorities are falsely reporting the numbers of departures linked to the vaccine.

He predicted more than 2,000 would leave if the program continues.