News

European Stars and Stripes
December 9, 1999
Pg. 3

New Policy Would Establish Anthrax-Shot Exemptions

By Chuck Vinch, Washington bureau

WASHINGTON óThe Defense Department is getting close to unveiling a new policy that will exempt troops who are getting close to retirement and separation from having to begin taking the anthrax vaccine, officials said Wednesday.

The mandatory vaccination program was launched more than 20 months ago, but there has never been a broad policy in place to indicate how to deal with troops who are closing in on the end of their service. Defense Department officials could not explain why such a policy was not built into the program from the start.

Virginia Stefanokis, a spokeswoman for the Army surgeon generalís office that is overseeing the militarywide program, said a final decision on how far out the exemption will be set has not yet been made. But it will probably fall in line with other "end-of-term" policies, most of which put the cutoff at 180 days prior to retirement or separation. For example, thatís the cutoff for exempting troops from deploying for most operational contingencies short of full-scale war, she said.

"Up until now, we havenít had a clear-cut, absolute deadline for when we should stop giving the shots to people who are getting out," Stefanokis said. "Itís been left to the discretion of local commanders."

The new policy is being staffed within the Pentagon, and may get final approval within the next few weeks, she said. Some troops say the cutoff for exemptions should match the time it takes to administer the full vaccine program, which involves six separate shots over an 18-month period, with the first three coming relatively close together.

Stefanokis said the Defense Departmentís new policy almost certainly will not go that far. "Someoneís plans about getting out of the service can change when you go that far out," she said.

And while the Pentagon says all six shots are required for full protection against anthrax, a highly lethal biological agent, the level of protection increases with each shot and particularly after the first three closely- spaced doses, she said.

"The goal is to have everyone get all six shots for maximum protection," she said. "But each shot offers considerably more protection."

The military has begun giving the controversial vaccine to more than 350,000 troops who are based in the Middle East and Korea or would be expected to quickly deploy to those areas in a crisis. The Pentagon said last week that the second phase of the program, involving other early-deployment units and originally scheduled to start next month, has been pushed back to the spring or summer because production of the drug has temporarily halted.

The only company that makes the vaccine, which was formerly run by the state of Michigan, was privatized last year. At the same time, the companyís facility was extensively overhauled, and no new batches of the vaccine can be manufactured until the Food and Drug Administration completes its safety and standards inspections of the new plant.