According to Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, the decision to offer the additional measures come “out of an abundance of caution.”
He said people may choose to receive the vaccine over four weeks while they take the antibiotics, or simply continue to take antibiotics for a 40-day or 60-day cycle, to make sure there is no lingering infection.
Letters contaminated with anthrax were discovered on Capitol Hill and at media organizations two months ago, causing five deaths and multiple infections. Authorites prescribed a 60-day treatment among those who may have been exposed. Many of those people will finish their treatements in the coming weeks.
Thompson did not say the government was recommending taking the additional steps, but rather that the individuals should discuss the options with their doctors.
The vaccine is not without its own concerns though. The U.S. began vaccinating members of the military on 1998. The series of three shots, given over four weeks, causes redness and swelling. Besides these side effects, several military personnel complained that the shots made them ill. They described problems that were later diagnosed as auto-immune, similar to what is now called Gulf War Syndrome.
In a statement from Health and Human Services, health officials stated, “the vaccine may provide additional protection by inducing an immune response to the anthrax organism, and could provide immunity to infection over a longer period of time.”
The vaccine has never been used after an exposure. Those taking the vaccine would be asked to take part in a follow-up study on the effect of the vaccine, due to the treatment’s experimental nature.
Dr. D.A. Henderson, head of the Office of Public Health Preparedness, said the new precaution is based solely on theoretical data gleaned from animal studies.
“We don’t have a lot of information about this,” he told reporters today.
The studies showed that the bacteria, originally believed to remain in the body for 60 days after exposure, may indeed remain longer.
Officials believe that fewer than 3,000 people were exposed to large amounts of anthrax, but they have expressed concern that not all of those people finished their course of antibiotics. Large numbers of postal workers have said they stopped taking Cipro, or other antibiotics, soon after they received them.
Officials say they will begin offering the vaccine to Capitol Hill staffers tomorrow, but will wait another week to begin the treatment for postal workers while they conduct a more thorough education effort for them.