Threats of biological weapon attacks in the 1990s prompted the U.S. military to vaccinate millions of service members against anthrax. But at the time, the vaccine had not been approved by FDA.
Service members and veterans have since been struggling with long-term side effects that were unknown at the time of vaccination. Today, many veterans can secure VA disability compensation for health conditions associated with military anthrax vaccination.
How Common is Anthrax Infection?
Anthrax is a rare infectious disease caused by the bacterium, Bacillus anthracis. There are around two cases of anthrax per year in the U.S. and 2,000 worldwide (most common in southern and central Asia and Africa). The severity of the disease depends on the route of entry. For example, skin infections show a mortality rate of around 23.7 percent, while respiratory infection has a mortality rate of between 50 and 80 percent.
Those at the highest risk for infection are those who work around livestock, laboratory workers, intravenous drug users, frequent travelers, and military personnel (due to frequent travel).
Human to human infection is rare. Typically, infection occurs through exposure to bacterial spores from infected animals or soil – by working with or eating contaminated animal products, unsanitary wound care, inhaling spores, or injecting substances that contain spores (such as injecting heroin made from poppies grown in contaminated soil).
History of Military Anthrax Vaccination
In 1997, to protect military service members against potential bioweapons, the U.S. military implemented its Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program (AVIP), vaccinating over 2.5 million service members and Defense Department civilian contractors with the BioThrax anthrax vaccine between March 1998 and June 2001.
The program ended in June 2001 when vaccine manufacturing protocols were altered without FDA approval. Service members looking into the problem discovered BioThrax had never been licensed by the FDA.
Enter the 2001 anthrax attacks. In September 2001, politicians and media personalities began receiving anonymous letters containing a strange powder. On October 4, British Sun photojournalist Bob Stevens went to the hospital with flu-like symptoms. He was pronounced dead the next day, cause of death labeled anthrax infection.
Over the next few weeks, anthrax had infected 21 other people, killing four. In 2010, the Justice Department ruled that the attacks were committed by Fort Detrick biodefense scientist, Bruce Ivins, who’d committed suicide two years earlier.
In response, on June 28, 2002, the U.S. military reinstated its mandatory anthrax vaccination program for service members. In December 2003, the Department of Justice ruled that the military could not force servicemembers to have the anthrax vaccine, and the program was again shut down.
Mandatory military anthrax vaccines were imposed again during the third week of October 2004, but after eight days of vaccinations, the mandate was deemed illegal, and the program again shut down until the vaccine received FDA approval. Still, numerous military members continued to receive the anthrax vaccine. An FDA-approved form of the anthrax vaccine did not appear until 2015.
And as time went on, reports of health issues possibly associated with the anthrax vaccine started cropping up. In 2000, studies looking into the potential causes of Gulf War Syndrome found that veterans with Gulf War Syndrome had anti-Squalene antibodies in their blood. In 2001, studies showed that certain lots of the anthrax vaccine contained Squalene, and in 2002, studies showed that those who’d received the anthrax vaccine had developed antibodies to Squalene.
Squalene is a common adjuvant included in vaccines to boost the body’s response to the vaccine. Depending on the concentration, preparation, and route of administration of Squalene, it may have no health effects at all or it may increase the risk of certain health conditions. Since Squalene is used safely in many vaccines today, its association with health conditions is still controversial.
Side Effects of Military Anthrax Vaccine
Most vaccines, including the anthrax vaccine, may cause some mild and immediate side effects, including bruising, tenderness, redness at the injection site, fatigue, fever, difficulty moving the injection arm, muscle pain, or headaches.
As with any vaccine, more severe reactions are expected to occur in an estimated 34 percent of vaccine recipients. But the number for the anthrax vaccine was much higher, with 84 percent of vaccine recipients reporting more severe reactions, including heart palpitations, breathing difficulty, weakness, hives, throat swelling, and dizziness. These reactions were not life-threatening but may have been indicators of the long-term side effects to come.
While the long-term side effects of the anthrax vaccine are not well defined, vaccine recipients have reported development of arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, impaired motor skills, cognitive impairment, infertility, memory impairment, blindness, paralysis, and birth defects in offspring.
Some suggest Gulf War Syndrome is a result of the anthrax vaccine. Numerous servicemembers and veterans reported a wide variety of unexplained illnesses after serving in the Gulf War. Collectively referred to as Gulf War Syndrome, those illnesses include:
- Sleep disorders / insomnia
- Skin conditions
- Respiratory disorders
- Psychological disorders
- Neurological disorders
- Myalgic encephalomyelitis
- Menstrual problems
- Memory problems
- Gastrointestinal disorders (irritable bowel syndrome, abdominal pain syndrome, dyspepsia)
- Chronic joint and muscle pain
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Cardiovascular disease
- Abnormal weight loss
Scientists are still working to uncover the cause of Gulf War Syndrome. So far, scientists, the military, and VA have not officially linked it to the anthrax vaccine.
How to Get Veteran Benefits for Anthrax Vaccine Side Effects
Veterans who received the anthrax vaccination during service who are experiencing any of the health conditions listed above may be eligible for VA disability benefits. But proving an illness is service-connected due to anthrax vaccination is challenging.
Many veterans go the easier route, obtaining service connection for Gulf War Syndrome, since most of the conditions associated with anthrax vaccination long-term side effects are included in the VA’s Gulf War Syndrome presumptive list.
However, those veterans who have developed illnesses not included on the Gulf War Syndrome presumptive list will need powerful evidence to prove service connection.
To establish eligibility for VA disability benefits associated with anthrax vaccination, a veteran must show:
- Official diagnosis of a health condition
- Military records (C-file) showing that you received an anthrax vaccination during service
- Medical nexus opinion stating that your health problem is “at least as likely as not” caused by the anthrax vaccination.
The challenge comes in at number three. To prove a medical nexus between anthrax vaccination and a health condition, you will need to find a doctor qualified and experienced in writing medical nexus letters for VA claims. This doctor will have the skills and resources required to evaluate the scientific literature and clinical evidence, rule out other possible causes for your condition, and prepare a clear, compelling opinion for the VA.