More MS news articles for Oct 2001

Women Blame Anthrax Vaccine for Illnesses

Saturday October 27 12:26 AM EDT

Long before anyone could imagine that anthrax attacks would begin appearing in the United States, Jenny Enoch was serving at a U.S. Air Force base in Kuwait, rolling up her sleeve for the military's mandatory anthrax vaccination.

The vaccination program, which the Department of Defense had ordered for all active-duty and reservist personnel, consisted of six shots to be administered over 18 months. But after her third vaccination, in September 1999, Enoch started having strange health problems.

"I began to notice almost immediately that I was having extreme difficulty sleeping," Enoch, a former Air Force security specialist, told Good Morning America . "I couldn't hold anything down not food, not liquids for about a week. And then I started having gray-outs where I would almost pass out completely, pretty much at any given moment."

No Scientific Link Found

Enoch blamed the anthrax vaccine and she was not alone.

Other military women who received the anthrax vaccine said they were subsequently besieged by autoimmune diseases, and they have blamed the vaccine too. Over the past two or three years, military service members have complained of adverse reactions and faced dishonorable discharge for refusing the shots. In May, one military doctor chose court-martial and punishment rather than submit to the vaccine.

Capitol Hill got involved, too. Members of Congress urged the National Institutes of Health to step up studies on the anthrax vaccine. But, despite the anecdotal support for the women's claims, there has been no scientific evidence linking their symptoms to the vaccine

In the research studies, the vaccine has, again and again, been proven safe, with no more side effects than any other vaccine, according to Dr. Tom Waytes, vice president of medical affairs at Bioport, the manufacturer of the anthrax vaccine.

"This has become the most thoroughly studied vaccine in history," Waytes said. "There have been 18 studies looking into the safety of this vaccine, and these studies have been presented and reviewed by some very prestigious scientific groups, including the Institute of Medicine. The final result is always the same: The vaccine is safe."

The Pentagon has also roundly refuted any claims that the vaccine may have caused serious illnesses, and has declared it safe. The military began implementing the Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program in 1998. Of the 520,000 armed-service members who have received the shots since the program started, only 1,600, or 0.3 percent, have reported adverse reactions, mostly temporary rashes or swelling at the injection site, according to the military.

Similar Symptoms

Still, the women who became seriously ill after receiving the vaccine share eerily similar stories.

"I spoke to, or examined the records of, a dozen military women who were perfectly healthy before the shots that they took," said Sheila Weller, senior contributing editor for Self magazine. "They got symptoms within weeks, sometimes days. And the symptoms were all autoimmune in nature, meaning they were linked to the family of diseases such as lupus and multiple sclerosis, in which the immune system attacks the body."

Normally, women get autoimmune diseases 75 percent more often than men, and Pentagon records have shown that women do experience more temporary side effects from the anthrax vaccine. Women make up only 12 percent of anthrax recipients (the military is 85 percent male), but they make up 26 percent of adverse-effect sufferers.

Enoch told her physician about her symptoms, but the doctor said she was stressed, and perhaps depressed about being away from home. It was not until five months later, February 2000, that she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a syndrome distinguished by chronic pain in the muscles, ligaments, tendons or the areas around joints.

Another doctor said that she might have lupus, a type of immune system disorder. Both fibromyalgia and lupus are autoimmune diseases, which are characterized by the immune system attacking the body, rather than protecting it.

"I'm in constant pain," Enoch said. "I have chronic fatigue. I have serious concentration problems and memory loss."

Like others, Enoch soon began linking her illness to the vaccines.

"I was healthy and active, absolutely, prior to that third shot," she said. "And when I returned from Kuwait, it was literally as if I was a whole different person. Finding the energy to even clean my house after that was a task in itself."

Could it Be Just a Coincidence?

"I understand where some of these people may believe that their chronic medical problems were caused by the vaccine," Waytes said. "However, if one looks at the medical and scientific data accumulated to date, it just doesn't support this."

Weller said that the military's figures on the low incidence of adverse reactions are optimistic.

"We don't know if it's coincidence or not," said Weller, who spent five months investigating the story. But if they are coincidences, they are startling ones.

One 25-year-old woman Weller spoke to, Ronda Breneman, was a young, successful Army pilot noticed by her superiors for her boundless energy and outstanding physical fitness. But weeks after her third shot for anthrax, she developed extreme gastroparesis, or paralysis of the stomach.

She now lives in a state of chronic nausea, has lost 45 pounds, and has memory loss.

Another woman, Debbie Lipshield, developed an intensive case of lupus within days after her shots. She's been in and out of hospital intensive care units, and is still in the hospital.

Yet another woman, Army Specialist Sandra Larson, had her immune system collapse in a virulent case of aplastic anemia 3 1/2 weeks after her sixth anthrax vaccination shot. She died two months later. A military doctor told Self that he did not think the anthrax vaccine had anything to do with her illness.

The anthrax vaccine is not currently available to the public.

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