Fort Lewis soldiers vaccinated

Nearly 4,000 soldiers assigned to a Stryker combat brigade in transit to Iraq are the first from Fort Lewis to receive a controversial anthrax vaccine since the shots again became mandatory for select U.S. service members.

On Feb. 8, the Army and the other service branches resumed mandatory inoculations for U.S. service members deploying to the Middle East and South Korea for more than 15 days, as well as those responsible for homeland bioterrorism defense.

Since than, Madigan Army Medical Center has administered 6,225 doses to soldiers, hospital spokeswoman Sharon Ayala said. The vaccine is delivered through six shots over an 18-month period, followed by an annual booster shot. Subsequent shots will be given to the soldiers where they're stationed overseas.

No soldier has refused the vaccine, Ayala said.

Airmen from McChord Air Force Base also are receiving the vaccine.

The 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division (Stryker Brigade Combat Team) recently departed Fort Lewis to serve for a year in Iraq.

The government has insisted that studies prove the vaccine is safe and effective. However, the vaccine has been a source of controversy for years.

It contains harmless parts of the bacteria. Some U.S. service members have been reluctant to be inoculated with the vaccine because of concerns about safety and possible side effects, which can include pain in the injected arm, swelling of lower arm, redness, chills and fever.

A federal judge stopped the Department of Defense's six-year-old mandatory vaccination program in October 2004, responding to a lawsuit filed by several U.S. service members and civilian employees at the Pentagon.

The program became voluntary in 2005, and about 50 percent of troops participated.

Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said that participation rate put troops at risk when he announced in October that mandatory vaccinations would resume.

Anthrax-laced letters sent to media outlets and government offices in fall 2001 killed five people. No suspect has been charged.

The Pentagon was authorized to resume mandatory inoculations because of a December 2005 order by the Food and Drug Administration that the vaccine - known as Anthrax Vaccine Adsorbed (AVA), or Biothrax - was safe and effective against all forms of anthrax.

The federal government licensed the vaccine in 1970 as being safe and effective for people who come in contact with animal hides and fur where anthrax spores might reside.

Six U.S. service members and civilian employees filed a federal lawsuit in December to again stop the mandatory vaccination program. The service branches had to draft instructions for the program before mandatory vaccinations could resume.

The federal government has asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, and the plaintiffs submitted their response this week.

AVA is the only anthrax vaccine licensed in the United States, although new vaccines using modern technology are being researched. About anthrax

Anthrax is an acute bacterial disease caused by an infection through the skin contact, ingestion or inhalation of spores of B. anthracis. Symptoms can vary depending on how the bacteria enter the body, and the disease can be fatal.