Caution flag raised on mandatory anthrax vaccines

Former Air Force navigator says neurological reaction has left him disabled

Posted: Oct. 28, 2007

With his trim runner’s build, tight flattop and thin, muscular arms, Stephen DeGuire does not seem like a man who is unable to empty the dishwasher, mow the lawn or throw baseballs to his young sons.

He forgets the names of neighbors he has known for years and grimaces as he pushes himself into a standing position. His torso tilts forward as he walks stiffly through his Mequon home. A wooden cane hangs on a chair in the living room. It is one of a collection that DeGuire keeps around. He frequently forgets where he puts them.

DeGuire is one of possibly thousands of veterans suffering from what some military and civilian doctors believe is a neurological reaction to the anthrax vaccine. The vaccine is controversial, yet now mandatory for many American troops and civilian contractors. About 1.6 million people have received the vaccine since 1998.

Nearly four years ago, DeGuire was stationed in Kuwait as a navigator for the U.S Air Force. Today, the 43-year-old struggles with migraines, memory problems, chronic pain and fatigue as his body slips further from his control.

DeGuire’s Air Force physical evaluation in 2006 listed his ailments and noted that they began to occur after he received the vaccine.

While DeGuire’s main concern is to keep his body from further deteriorating, he worries about his family’s financial future. He said he makes one-third of what he made as a civilian and will likely never work full-time again because of his condition.

Disability linked to reaction from the anthrax vaccine is deemed non-combat-related, meaning veterans like DeGuire are taxed on their disability payments. The anthrax vaccine is also not part of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which allows people who suffered vaccine reactions to collect money for their disability. DeGuire worries about soldiers who will be required to receive the anthrax vaccine in the future. He says the program was “well-intentioned,” but that officials in the government did not stop the vaccine when problems arose.

“They’ve had enough data to know there is something wrong with the vaccine,” DeGuire said.

The Department of Defense made the anthrax vaccine mandatory in 1998 out of concern that enemies would use anthrax as biological warfare. If inhaled, the substance is usually fatal. Mandatory vaccines were halted in October 2004, when a judge questioned the Food and Drug Administration’s approval procedures. In December 2005, the FDA gave final approval for the vaccine, and the Department of Defense made it mandatory again for soldiers and contractors serving in the Middle East, Central Asia and parts of Korea.

The Department of Defense maintains that the vaccine is “safe and effective.” In a media conference call last fall, assistant defense secretary William Winkenwerder said that the vaccine had not led to increased deaths or hospitalizations.

Critics of the vaccine disagree. Physician Meryl Nass said her patients usually have 10 or 15 different diagnosis that she attributes to the anthrax vaccine – sleep disorders, fatigue, cognitive disability and higher rates of neurological disorders such as multiple sclerosis. A doctor in Maine, Nass testified about the vaccine in July before the House Veterans Affairs Health Subcommittee.

Nass also points to records collected by the Vaccine Adverse Reporting System, which catalogs vaccine complications. The system has received about 5,359 adverse event reports for anthrax vaccine. About 670 of the reports were considered “seriousand about 44 of the reports recorded deaths. In the reports, some soldiers or their families pleaded with the military to stop the vaccines.

Most vaccines are linked with side effects, ranging from simple soreness to death. But that’s not much comfort to people like DeGuire, or other veterans he met while at Walter Reed Army Medical Center who also think they were affected by the anthrax vaccine.

Unlike many of those other veterans, DeGuire’s case was recently accepted by the Mayo Clinic, so in early August, he lugged his three-inch-thick medical file to Rochester, Minn. While doctors are working on his physical problems, DeGuire and his family are pushing legislators to do something about veteran benefits and mandatory vaccines.

DeGuire said he has tried to no avail to have legislators introduce an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would stop mandatory anthrax vaccines until more research is done.

Congress is considering changes on the benefits issue. The Disabled Veterans Tax Termination Act would give disabled veterans the same benefits as retired veterans with 20 years of service. The act is pending in the House subcommittee on disability assistance and memorial affairs. But no efforts are under way to reclassify ailments associated with the anthrax vaccine as combat related.

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