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Special Event

Pentagon: Not Using FDA-Approved Anthrax Vaccine Would be 'Irresponsible'

Aired February 17, 2000 - 1:62 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to go over to the Pentagon, where they are beginning to react to the Republican congressional report recommending the U.S. military suspend its mandatory anthrax vaccination program. Dr. Sue Bailey is an anthrax biological specialist. She's at the podium now.

DR. SUE BAILEY, ASST. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR HEALTH AFFAIRS: The Department of Defense is very confident in the anthrax program that we have undertaken. We have a very safe and effective vaccine against a very deadly biologic agent that we know to be in the hands of many of our adversaries and could be used against our forces. That would imply, were they not vaccinated and exposed to this agent, they would die a horrible death. It is our mission to protect those forces as they engage on the battlefield that now includes our concerns about weapons of mass destruction.

MAJ. GEN. RANDALL WEST, SPECIAL ASSISTANT FOR ANTHRAX AND BIOLOGICAL DEFENSE: When I was a commander of troops in Desert Storm, we learned after we crossed the border into Kuwait that the Iraqi forces had weaponized anthrax munitions, that they were deploying on the battlefield and pointed at our troops. The majority of my troops at that time would not have been vaccinated. One of the lessons that we learned from the intelligence that we gained after we crossed into Kuwait and Iraq was that that capability existed and could have been used, and if it had been used we would have lost the lives of a lot of American servicemen and women.

It's very important that we use the existing and available safe and effective vaccine to give our troops that go in harm's way the protection that they deserve. We have about 40,000 servicemen and women in harm's way every day under the threat of deliverable, weaponized aerosolized anthrax. We have a vaccine that FDA, the organization that our country depends upon to make the decisions and recommendations on vaccines, has certified to be safe and effective, and I believe that it would be irresponsible not to use that vaccine.

I was disappointed in the report that was released this morning. There are some things in it that I would champion. I'm glad that they called our vaccination program a well-intended effort. I'm glad that they recognized that there is a threat that needs to be countered. I would champion their proposal that we aggressively seek a better vaccine. In fact, we are. There's a funded and aggressive program under way with, under the supervision of the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, to do just that. We also -- we also believe that anything that we can do to improve the shot protocol would be a good thing to do. If you can give this vaccination in less than six shots you're probably going to have fewer reactions, and the fewer reactions we have, the better it is.

But after that, I find a lot of things in the report to be disappointed with. There are a lot of allegations in there that I believe were appropriately and adequately answered during the seven hearings that we had on this issue last year, and I believe if you take the -- many of the negative comments that are made in the report and go back and bounce them against the testimony that was given, you'll find many of those concerns were adequately addressed.

QUESTION; Dr. Bailey, might I ask, I guess to make a long story short, from your opening statement and the general's statement, you all, in effect, are rejecting this call to make this program voluntary, rather than mandatory, until another vaccine or improved vaccine is found?

BAILEY: Absolutely. As you know, there are many immunizations that are given to our troops that are also not voluntary. It is not only to protect the troops but to protect the effectiveness of the mission. For instance, tetanus was given in World War II, and though there were millions of wounds and casualties, we only had 12 cases of tetanus. It's that kind of protection that medicine can afford to our troops, and we are intent upon providing that to them.

QUESTION: What is the latest data on reactions, reactions that are serious enough to have the person either hospitalized or off duty for a day?

BAILEY: Well, as you know we've given now over 1 1/2 million immunizations to over 400,000 troops. During that time, we are reporting to the VAER System, the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, as well as monitoring on our own any adverse side effects. At this time we see the same historical pattern we see with other vaccines in terms of generally-mild reactions. I can give you the exact numbers, though, at this point, that we have 620 reports to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, and of that 106 included those who may have been out of work for more than 24 hours -- that's a loss of duty for that period of time but not hospitalized -- and 70 of those appear to be related to the vaccine. We had 26 who were hospitalized, and, of those, they were allergic reactions, inflammatory reactions that we often see with vaccines. And six of those of the 26 who were hospitalized did appear to be related to the vaccine. Again, this is the type of pattern we've seen historically with other vaccines that we provide.

QUESTION: Only six that were related to vaccine? What were the others, then, that weren't related to the vaccine?

BAILEY: People often are ill for other reasons, and we often, therefore, seek to determine what was actually related to any medical intervention preceding the illness, and in this case, to the best estimate that we could obtain, six of those who were hospitalized appear to be directly related to the vaccine. The others were ill or had reactions from other things.

QUESTION: And then of the -- and then of the 106 who were out of work for at least a day, 70 of those were related to the vaccine?

BAILEY: Appear to be related to the vaccine. Those are generally flu-like symptoms: malaise, loss of appetite, the same types of things you'd see with an influenza.

WATERS: There you have it. The people in charge of the anthrax program at the Pentagon telling us that the Pentagon has no plans to suspend its anthrax vaccination program despite that House subcommittee report recommending that the Pentagon suspend the program.

The statement from Representative Christopher Shays, who chairs that subcommittee, was that "the problem is we believe that the military has acted too quickly and has not done what is necessary, and that is to develop a drug that is modern that doesn't take six shots, that is a cleaner drug."

There's another side to this story. The highest-ranking military officer of 14 years in the Air Force, his name is Sonnie Bates, a major, has been threatened with a court-martial because he refused the anthrax vaccination. We are going to be talking with him in just a few minutes, on the line from Dover Air Force Base, to get his take on today's developments in the anthrax story.

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