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Army weighs vaccine link in troops' death
By Mark Benjamin
UPI Investigations Editor
Published 8/6/2003 12:40 PM
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 6 (UPI) -- The Army will consider whether the anthrax or other vaccine could be causing a cluster of pneumonia cases among soldiers in Iraq and southwestern Asia, an official said Wednesday.
Col. Robert DeFraites of the Army Surgeon General's office told United Press International that the Pentagon would look into whether vaccines, among other factors, might have triggered the pneumonia that has killed two soldiers and sickened 100.
"Among all of the possible causes or contributing factors, we are looking at the immunizations that the soldiers received as well," DeFraites told UPI Wednesday. "It is premature to say that there is any relationship at all."
The Pentagon announced Tuesday it is investigating the cases in search of a common factor, but did not mention vaccines as a possibility.
A co-author of a government-sponsored study of possible side effects from the anthrax vaccine told UPI Tuesday evening that the Army should look at whether that vaccine is behind the cluster of pneumonia cases. That study last year found the vaccine was the "possible or probable" cause of pneumonia in two soldiers.
"As physicians, I would think they would be looking at all possible causes. I would think vaccines would be part of that," said Dr. John L. Sever of George Washington University Medical School, who was one of six authors of the study.
Under a 1998 law, the military is supposed to take sample of soldiers' blood before and after deploying. One Gulf War illness expert said Wednesday that the Pentagon should use the samples to see if the anthrax vaccine is to blame.
"We need them to investigate the role of vaccines as aggressively as everything else in order to rule it in or out," said Steve Robinson, executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center.
"The question is, did these soldiers get their blood screened?" said Robinson. "It is my opinion that they missed a large portion of the soldiers who deployed for this war."
Last year's anthrax vaccine study, printed in the May 2002 issue of Pharmacoepidemiology and Drug Safety, found that the vaccine was the "possible or probable" cause of pneumonia among two soldiers, according to George Washington's Sever. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services convened the group, called the Anthrax Vaccine Expert Committee, which studied 602 reports of possible reactions to the vaccine among nearly 400,000 troops who received it, Sever said.
In addition to identifying pneumonia and flu-like symptoms among troops who received the vaccine, the group also looked at four other cases of potentially serious reactions, including severe back pain and two soldiers who had sudden difficulty breathing in a possible allergic reaction to the vaccine.
Sever described the two cases of pneumonia as "wheezing and difficulty breathing going into a pneumonia-like picture."
To conduct the study, the Anthrax Vaccine Expert Committee examined reports from the U.S. military to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; they are anecdotal reports and do not necessarily show a cause-and-effect relationship.
DeFraites said the two deaths under investigation by the Army Surgeon General occurred in June and July and that both soldiers had been in Iraq. He said the investigation began as soon as the first death occurred.
In a case apparently not included in that total, 22-year-old Army specialist Rachael Lacy of Lynwood, Ill., died at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., on April 4 of what one doctor diagnosed as pneumonia, after receiving anthrax and smallpox vaccinations but without ever having been deployed.
Dr. Eric Pfeifer, the Minnesota coroner who performed the autopsy, told the Army Times that the smallpox and anthrax vaccines "may have" contributed to her death. "It's just very suspicious in my mind...that she's healthy, gets the vaccinations and then dies a couple weeks later." He listed "post-vaccine" problems on the death certificate.
Moses Lacy, Rachael Lacy's father, told the Army Times that she called in March and said she had chest pains and breathing problems and had been diagnosed with pneumonia.
One service member who was deployed to Kuwait and received the four-shot anthrax series told UPI Tuesday he developed bronchitis and a severe cough after receiving his shots, and that about a fifth of the troops he was deployed with had similar symptoms and were prescribed medicine to treat them. His symptoms continued after he returned to the U.S., and he sought further treatment at a base clinic. He got better, but believes he nearly came down with pneumonia.
The Pentagon dispatched two teams to look into the pneumonia: one to Iraq and another to a U.S. military base in Landstuhl, Germany, where some sick soldiers are treated.