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Veterans Law

Anthrax Vaccine Causes Controversy

November 5, 2018
Updated: March 3, 2023
anthrax vaccine

Many veterans who served during the Gulf War period experienced Gulf War Syndrome, or Gulf War Illness, after their service.  Gulf War Illness is categorized by a host of different, unexplained symptoms.  As there has been no clear cause associated with Gulf War, many theories have surfaced that link the anthrax vaccine to Gulf War Illness.  Continue reading to learn more about the anthrax vaccine, Gulf War Illness, and the research behind both.

What is Anthrax?

Anthrax is an infectious disease caused by bacteria known as bacillus anthracis.  Anthrax commonly affects domestic and wild animals, as it often lives in soil.  However, anthrax can also affect humans if the bacteria enter the body.

There are four types of anthrax:

  • Cutaneous–involves exposure and symptoms associated with the skin
  • Gastrointestinal–involves exposure and symptoms associated with the GI tract
  • Inhalation–attacks a person’s respiratory system; most fatal form, often causing death within a few days of exposure
  • Injection–involves anthrax infection deep under the skin or in the muscle, and can progress faster and be harder to treat than other forms

Each type of anthrax relates to both the way in which the disease was contracted and the bodily system that was primarily affected.  Concerns regarding anthrax exposure increased significantly as the United States began fighting in the Gulf War during the 1990s.

What Does VA Define as the Gulf War?

For VA purposes, the Persian Gulf War refers to service in the Southwest Asia theater of military operations beginning on August 2, 1990.  At present time, the period for the Persian Gulf War extends to December 31, 2026, which means that service members who have served in the Southwest Asia theater of military operations after September 2001 are eligible for benefits under VA’s Gulf War presumption.

VA considers service in the following countries and locations as Gulf War service:

  • Bahrain
  • Gulf of Aden
  • Gulf of Oman
  • Iraq
  • Kuwait
  • Oman
  • Qatar
  • Saudi Arabia
  • The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.)
  • Waters of Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea
  • The neutral zone between Iraq and Saudi Arabia
  • The airspace above these locations

Veterans of Operation Desert Storm and Desert Shield meet the criteria for qualifying service during the Persian Gulf War, as do veterans of Operation New Dawn (OND), Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), and in some instances, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF).

What is Gulf War Illness?

Gulf War Illness is a complex medical condition that presents as a cluster of chronic, medically unexplained symptoms (MUCMIs) such as fatigue, pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, respiratory symptoms, dermatological symptoms, and neurological symptoms.  GWI was defined using a modified Center for Disease Control (CDC) definition consisting of endorsement of at least one item within at least two of the following clusters:

  • Fatigue cluster – consisted of two items: (1) unusual fatigue; and (2) having a lot of energy
  • Musculoskeletal cluster – consisted of unusual muscle pains; back pain; and pain in arms, legs, or joints
  • Mood-cognition cluster – consisted of items assessing forgetfulness, confusion, trouble sleeping, nervousness/anxiety, feeling downhearted/blue, irritability, and trouble falling/staying asleep

What is the Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program?

The Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program (AVIP) was a policy set forth by the U.S. Federal Government to immunize its military and certain civilian personnel with the anthrax vaccine.  Under this program, the vaccination was made mandatory for servicemembers and failure to comply often resulted in administrative separation from service.

AVIP began in 1997 and led to over 8 million doses of the anthrax vaccine being administered to over 2 million U.S. military personnel between March 1998 and June 2008.  The driving force behind this policy was the threat of Iraq using anthrax as a biological warfare agent in the Gulf War.

As such, the goal of AVIP was to protect soldiers against this potential threat.  However, AVIP was very controversial, insofar as later research demonstrates numerous adverse health outcomes possibly linked to the vaccine itself.

Vaccinations and Gulf War Syndrome

In addition to the anthrax vaccine, veterans who served during the Gulf War Era also received vaccinations for yellow fever, typhoid, cholera, hepatitis B, meningitis, whooping cough, polio, and tetanus.  As many as 8,000 veterans may have also received the Botulinum toxoid vaccine.

VA also cites that approximately 150,000 received the anthrax vaccine.

Anthrax Vaccine: Side-Effects and Health Concerns

The main points of contention regarding AVIP and the anthrax vaccine involve the short and long-term health effects of the vaccine.  Specifically, the vaccine has been known to cause several side-effects ranging from mild to severe.

Anthrax Vaccine Side Effects

For many people who received the vaccine, side-effects occurred such as the following:

  • Tenderness
  • Redness
  • Itching at injection site
  • Temporary limitation of arm movement
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Joint pain
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Weakness
  • Hoarseness
  • Wheezing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Swelling of the lips and throat

Importantly, some Persian Gulf War veterans began reporting these symptoms, as well as:

  • Severe fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Respiratory disorders

The symptoms listed as side-effects of the anthrax vaccine closely resemble those included in the list of symptoms referred to as Gulf War Syndrome, or Gulf War Illness.  As a result, many questions have been raised regarding the possible correlation between the vaccination and Gulf War Syndrome.

Is There Evidence of the Anthrax Vaccine Causing Gulf War Illness?

While the government initially argued that these symptoms were a result of psychological trauma, there is additional evidence pointing to a combination of environmental exposures, including the vaccine.

According to VA, and to a report published by the National Academy of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, there is “inadequate or insufficient evidence to determine whether an association does or does not exist between multiple vaccinations and long-term adverse health problems.”

Can Veterans File a Claim for Symptoms Relating to the Anthrax Vaccine?

As VA does not recognize the anthrax vaccine directly as causing Gulf War Illness, it can be extremely difficult to receive benefits for conditions linked directly to the anthrax vaccine.  If veterans have Gulf War Illness, they may have an easier time becoming service-connected through the presumption of service connection.

Presumption of Service Connection for Gulf War Veterans

Under 38 C.F.R. 3.317, Gulf War veterans may be eligible for presumptive service connection.  Specifically, if a veteran served between August 2, 1990 and December 31, 2026 in any of the following locations:

  • Bahrain
  • Gulf of Aden
  • Gulf of Oman
  • Iraq
  • Kuwait
  • Oman
  • Qatar
  • Saudi Arabia
  • The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.)
  • Waters of Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, and the Arabian Sea
  • The neutral zone between Iraq and Saudi Arabia
  • The airspace above these locations

How to Establish Service Connection for Anthrax Vaccine Side Effects

Veterans who experience a long-term side effect of the anthrax vaccine, such as respiratory conditions, arm pain, joint pain, fatigue, or memory/mood conditions, may be eligible for VA disability benefits.  However, in order to receive benefits, veterans need to establish service connection.  This can be very challenging, as mentioned above, often leading veterans to seek service connection for Gulf War Illness instead of anthrax vaccine side-effects since it can be easier to establish service connection for this.

If a veteran’s illness cannot be linked to Gulf War Illness or they need to establish service connection for anthrax vaccine side effects, they will need to provide:

  • An official diagnosis of the condition linked to the vaccine side effects
  • Military records, such as records included in the veteran’s c-file, indicating that they received the anthrax vaccine during their military service
  • A medical nexus which indicates that the veteran’s health condition is “at least as likely as not” caused by the anthrax vaccine

Do You Need Help with Your Appeal for Gulf War Syndrome/Illness or Anthrax Vaccine Side Effects?

If you are a veteran battling through a long appeal process for VA disability benefits for Gulf War Illness or anthrax vaccine side effects, the accredited representatives at Chisholm Chisholm & Kilpatrick may be able to help.  Our talented veterans’ advocates have helped Gulf War Veterans with their appeals and we may be able to help you.  Call us today for a free case evaluation.