Soldiers Fear the Needle

The Pentagon still fights for its anthrax vaccine

Mark Zaid, one of the lawyers who brought the latest suit against DOD, has been fighting the anthrax vaccine program since it was introduced during the Clinton administration. He said the first service members who dealt with the vaccine dilemma were sailors, like Lilienstern, Muller, and Jesse Kearns—people who served on aircraft carriers and destroyers that were in, or getting ready to sail to, the Persian Gulf.

Zaid said the sailors, thousands of miles from home, were able to connect with the growing network of activists starting to raise concerns about the program. "These kids had Internet access. So they'd e-mail their moms, and their moms would do the research," he said. Many of these moms found the work of Meryl Nass, a doctor based in Maine who specializes in anthrax and bio-terrorism.

"Most people don't get sick," Nass told the Voice, "but a significant minority do." Nass said soldiers started contacting her about the vaccine in 1998, after many of them found a short article she had posted to an Internet mailing list. In the article, she noted there was still no answer to the question of what causes Gulf War Syndrome; and that the anthrax vaccine had not been subjected to a clinical trial.

Jesse Kearns says the anthrax vaccine caused his ongoing health woes, including heart attacks, blood clots, and a stroke.
photo: Kareem Fahim
Jesse Kearns says the anthrax vaccine caused his ongoing health woes, including heart attacks, blood clots, and a stroke.

The DOD maintains that the vaccine has an "extensive" safety record, noting that more than1.3 million people have received the vaccine, and a million of those people are still on active duty. "The rate of adverse events is similar to other vaccines," wrote a Pentagon spokesperson in an e-mail, adding that the AVIP program is currently "paused." In fact, the program is not paused, legally, but stopped.

"There still exists no reliable clinical data from which to glean the types of adverse reactions, their rates, or severity," said Nass. While there have been extensive tests on animals, she noted that no one has been able to extrapolate that data to humans.

By the time Jesse Kearns's aunt started to suspect the anthrax vaccine was what had made her nephew sick, and started combing the Web for information on it, his illness was well advanced. In 2001, his arm inexplicably ballooned after he lifted a new macerator motor on his ship. Navy doctors told him he had deep-vein thrombosis, and that it would "take care of itself," he recalled. He returned to the U.S. on leave a few months later, and his arm swelled again. Doctors told him he had antiphospholipid syndrome, an autoimmune disease that causes blood clots, and prescribed Coumadin, an anticoagulant.

Within eight months, he developed another blood clot in his right leg. His navy service ended in January 2003, and he started a job in a building-supply yard. He had trained on fire crews in the navy, but his condition meant he wouldn't be able to pass a fire department physical at home in New York. This is what Kearns regrets most about his illness, apart from the looming threat to his life: A troubled kid before joining the navy, Kearns had found his confidence working to put out fires on the ship, as well as a plan for his future.

Kearns and his family are not sure the anthrax vaccine has anything to do with his ailments; as with many of those who receive the shots and then come down with unexplained illnesses, the rumors surrounding the anthrax shots—and the continuing sense of mystery—provides a possible answer. Dr. Nass said that studies linking vaccinations to Gulf War Syndrome call the anthrax vaccine a "separate risk factor."

Whatever caused his illness, Kearns's struggle now is with the military bureaucracy. He has applied for disabled-veteran benefits, and today only receives $300 a month. He is in the midst of talks with the Department of Veterans Affairs to get more, so he can move out of his mother's house and start his life.

"The suffering of this patient and his struggles to gain support for his medical care highlight how difficult it can be for service members to navigate the health care and disability systems," wrote Dr. Renata Engler, director of the Vaccine Healthcare Centers Network at Walter Reed Medical Center, who did an extensive write-up on the Kearns case. "The fact that he is administratively struggling for recognition of the seriousness of his illness and approached [us] because he felt he had to prove that his illness was service connected saddens this military physician with almost thirty years service."

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