October 21, 1999
The Health Unit is a partnership with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: American soldiers are being trained to fight weapons that can kill them almost as fast as bullets...
TRAINER: If anybody says, "stop" or "freeze," you freeze at what you're doing.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The weapons are biological -- germs, bacteria -- even the plague. One of the most deadly is anthrax. The government says at least 10 countries have the bacteria in their arsenals, despite international treaties outlawing this kind of warfare. John Hamre is the number two civilian official at the Pentagon.
JOHN HAMRE: We have troops today that are in the field who are opposite a potential opponent who could use an anthrax bomb on them tonight. If that were to happen, there are only three things that could occur: The first is you die. The second is you could put on a suit, a protective suit and for 45 days give yourself antibiotic injections and hope you don't die. Or third you could take a vaccine -- a vaccine that's been safe and effective and used for over 20 years.
Pentagon orders the vaccine
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Two years ago the Pentagon ordered all two and a half million of its active duty and reserve personnel to take that vaccine by the year 2003. To be fully inoculated they must take six shots over an 18-month period -- then an annual booster. But a growing number of people are opposed to the Pentagon's mandatory policy. They say the vaccine isn't safe and doesn't work. Those fears have led to resignations, courts-martial and less than honorable discharges from the military.
PENTAGON OFFICIAL: One breath is enough to kill you.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: To quell some of the fears of vaccine opponents, the Pentagon has dispatched top officials all over the country.
WOMAN: Who made you all -- or the government -- God - to say who, you know, to endanger his health this way? Are you going to be around in 20 years to pick up the pieces?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Here the director of the vaccination program met with doubting military personnel and their families in Colorado Springs.
LT. COL. RANDY RANDOLF: It is in now way, Ladies and Gentlemen, experimental. It was not experimental during Desert Shield, Desert Storm. It is not experimental now.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Michigan National Guardsman Robin Groll believes the vaccine is experimental. She says she got sick after taking four anthrax shots, and the military says it can't rule the vaccine out as the cause of her ailments.
ROBIN GROLL: I had tremors on the right side of my body that remained consistent every day for three months. They still come and go, the joint aches, the memory loss.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: You hurt?
ROBIN GROLL: Hurt. I hurt.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Where do you hurt?
ROBIN GROLL: I hurt in my lower back. I hurt in my hands. It hurts to walk; it hurts to move. Some days they're good and some days are really bad.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The army's Surgeon General, Ronald Blanck, says only a very small number of people have had that kind of reaction.
|Small number of reactions|
LT. GEN. RONALD BLANCK: In the over 340,000 individuals who have received this immunization we have had reported to us -- and we require this reporting -- 72 cases of significant reactions and side effects which is a very, very small reaction. Nonetheless, we look very carefully at each and every one.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Groll and other opponents say there are hundreds of people who have had serious medical complications, and they claim the Pentagon doesn't do a good job of tracking them. So vaccine opponents have tried to spread their beliefs about the dangers of the vaccine in a vast Internet campaign. Military officials say that has created a problem.
LT. GEN. RONALD BLANCK: This is an information war and an information war being carried out differently than its been carried out before -- because before it was with radio, TV, print -- and now its with something far more rapid called the Internet. And it doesn't go through somebody else as a filter, so there's all sorts of information on the Internet -- some accurate, some not accurate -- that leads to genuine concern in some of our folks.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The anthrax vaccine is made by Bioport of Lansing, Michigan...the only company in the United States that manufactures it. Bioport has a questionable safety record with the federal Food and Drug Administration. The FDA refused the NewsHour's request for an on-camera interview, but documents show the FDA threatened to revoke Bioport's license to make anthrax vaccine in 1997. However, the army's surgeon general says the Pentagon has determined the vaccine to be safe.
LT. GEN. RONALD BLANCK: We did safety testing. We did purity testing. We did testing to make sure the vaccine was sterile -- there was no contamination -- and we did testing with animals to make sure that it was potent. So those four supplemental tests were put into place on all lots of vaccine before we administered it.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Besides safety concerns, opponents to the vaccine argue there is no proof it would even be effective against all strains of anthrax inhaled in an attack. The vaccine currently being given to the military has never been tested on humans to see if it works -- because everyone in a hypothetical control group would die. It has been tested on guinea pigs and monkeys -- but a recent General Accounting Office report says "these studies...may not be extrapolated to humans." The army's top anthrax researcher, Dr. Arthur Friedlander, disagrees.
DR. ARTHUR FRIEDLANDER: We have 62 of 65 animals that have survived a lethal aerosol challenge against this disease. That's a 95 percent survival rate. That's the best data that exists.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is it good enough for you?
DR. ARTHUR FRIEDLANDER: It's good enough for me. I don't see how it's not good enough for anybody. Given the threat, in fact, I think it would be medical malpractice not to offer and give that vaccine.
SPOKESMAN: Put on goggles or face away from the target area.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But the vaccine's opponents have a hard time believing the Pentagon, saying the U.S. Military has a history of being careless with its soldiers -- whether it was during nuclear tests at the dawn of the atomic age or the spraying of Agent Orange in Vietnam.
That skepticism has led to a growing number of acts of resistance in the ranks. More than 30 soldiers have been court-martialed for refusing the shots -- and opponents say hundreds more are leaving the military rather than take the vaccine.
JASON AUSTIN, Ex-Marine Corporal: We heard rumors of it making you sterile or having certain rashes that would develop.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jason Austin was a 24-year-old Marine corporal in California when he and four buddies first started hearing those kinds of rumors about anthrax. They finally refused to take the shots. That got him and his four friends a court-martial, 30-days in the brig, and a bad conduct discharge.
JASON AUSTIN: The more information we got leading up to our court martial, the more we were glad that we made the decision we made.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Some of the strongest resistance has come from pilots in the Air Reserve and National Guard; they are an important part of America's fighting force these days, because the Pentagon depends on the Reserve and Guard soldiers to fly 50 percent of all its missions. Many Air and National Guard pilots are also commercial airline pilots who worry side effects from the shots could affect their performance in both cockpits -- pilots like Col. Tom Heemstra.
LT. COL. TOM HEEMSTRA: When we're flying high performance airplanes -- F 16's at low altitude and rugged terrain and high speeds and very demanding missions -- we don't need memory loss or dizziness or some of the symptoms that are associated with this shot.
BETTY ANN BOWSER:
Heemstra was a wing commander in the Indiana National Guard, but he lost his command
when he refused to take the anthrax shots. He told a congressional subcommittee
that hundreds of pilots want to transfer out of the cockpit
LT. COL. TOM HEEMSTRA: There are over 500 pilots that will walk out the door over this shot.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Congress has become so concerned with the pilot departures and military readiness, that it has held nearly a dozen hearings about the vaccine.
REP. CHRISTOPHER SHAYS: How many are leaving? In some Air Guard units, attrition among pilots and technicians may be as high as 30-percent. But DOD appears unable or unwilling to discern a trend.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: General Paul Weaver, director of the Air National Guard, testified that the number of pilot resignations have been exaggerated.
GEN. PAUL WEAVER: So, when I hear all of these other figures about these mass resignations, and whatnot, they're just not there. There are challenges with explaining, with discussing, as they all are, with the members of their unit, on the anthrax issue. But when it really gets down to it, we've had 10,700 people inoculated for anthrax in the Air National Guard, with one known refusal.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But
the public affairs officer for the Tennessee Air National Guard told the NewsHour
that 21 of 51 pilots of the 164th Air Lift Wing are asking to
MAJOR TOM REMPFER: Several officers from the Connecticut National Guard, which was my home state unit, made the unfortunate decision to depart the force, depart the Air National Guard and transfer to other positions. And eight of us went on the record in Congressional hearings saying it was exclusively because of the anthrax policy and if it weren't for that policy, we'd all still be flying today.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Is it possible that there really is a problem with people not wanting to take this vaccine and you just don't know about it?
JOHN HAMRE: No, I think there are people who don't want to take the vaccine.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: A lot of them?
JOHN HAMRE: I don't think it s a lot. I think there are a lot of people who have not been forced to think about it yet, and then I think there are a bunch of people just starting to be forced to think about it because they're hearing about the need to take the inoculation in their unit, and they are asking questions and we haven't done a good enough job of answering those questions.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Congressman Ben Gilman, Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, says he has unanswered questions too.
REP. BEN GILMAN: There are a number of serious questions on the safety, the efficacy -- whether it's an effective vaccine. I'm all for protecting our troops. But if there's no immediate emergency, then why are we rushing into performing a vaccination on all of our troops at the present time?
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Gilman has introduced legislation to halt the entire program until more is known about the vaccine's safety and effectiveness.