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Veterans Law

Anthrax Vaccine Causes Controversy

November 5, 2018
Updated: January 2, 2020
anthrax vaccine

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 gets into the body.  There are four types of anthrax including: cutaneous, gastrointestinal, inhalation, and injection.  Each type of anthrax relates to both the way in which the disease was contracted and the bodily system that is primarily affected.  Namely, cutaneous anthrax involves exposure and symptoms associated with the skin, while gastrointestinal (GI) anthrax involves exposure and symptoms associated with the GI tract.  Inhalation anthrax is the most fatal form, as it attacks a person’s respiratory system, typically causing death within a few days.  Concerns regarding anthrax exposure increased significantly as the United States began fighting in the Gulf War during the 1990s.

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.

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 a number of side-effects ranging from mild to severe.  Mild side-effects include tenderness, redness, itching at injection site; temporary limitation of arm movement; headache; fever; joint pain; and fatigue; whereas severe side-effects include difficulty breathing, weakness, hoarseness, wheezing, fast heartbeat, and swelling of the lips and throat.  Importantly, Persian Gulf War veterans began reporting debilitating symptoms such as severe fatigue, joint pain, headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and respiratory disorders following service.  Such symptoms, included in the list of symptoms referred to as Gulf War Syndrome, closely resemble the short-term effects associated with the anthrax vaccination.  As a result, many questions have been raised regarding a correlation between the vaccination and Gulf War Syndrome.  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.