DOD implements mandatory anthrax vaccinations for high-threat deployments

  • Published
  • By Holly L. Birchfield
  • 78 ABW/PA
A new Department of Defense policy, implemented March 19 in accordance with DOD and Air Force guidance, is calling for Airmen with orders to or those currently in areas of high threat for anthrax get vaccinated against the deadly bacteria.

High-threat areas for anthrax include primarily the Central Command Area of Responsibility and the Korean Peninsula, said Lt. Col. Todd Shull, Air Force Counter-Biological Warfare Division chief.

The DOD determined these forwarded areas pose the highest threat for military forces so they must meet the mandatory anthrax vaccine measures. Additionally, individuals in designated special mission units, regardless of location, are also subject to mandatory anthrax vaccination.

"The second key piece of the program is the voluntary aspect of the AVP," Colonel Shull said. "This involves Airmen who have received at least one anthrax vaccine dose since 1998. Under the new guidelines, they can elect to continue getting the anthrax vaccinations in accordance with the dosing schedule whether or not they are (or will be) assigned to a designated high-threat area."

Col. Jim McClain, 78th Medical Group commander, said the anthrax vaccine program is an important one.

"We all need to remember that the biological threat as well as the chemical threat is very real, both within the CENTCOM AOR and in other areas as well," he said. "So, as a result of that, the Anthrax Vaccination Program has great value for our troops here at Robins Air Force Base and other personnel."

Col. Ricky Cook, 78th Dental Squadron commander, said the policy affects individuals who will be deploying for more than 15 days to Korea and other areas of Southwest Asia.

Lt. Col. (Dr.) Mike Bledsoe, who specializes in occupational medicine in the 78th Aerospace Medicine Squadron, said the number of individuals affected by the new vaccine policy may vary at Robins.

"In any given month, we usually end up deploying as many as 200 or 300 people and all of those people, if they're not up to date on anthrax, will have to have the vaccination before they actually depart," he said.

Colonel McClain said potentially anyone in a deployable situation or making a permanent change of station to the Korean Peninsula could be affected by the vaccine program.

Pat Tooley, lead health specialist in the Public Health Flight in the 78th MDG, said the vaccine isn't a one shot deal. "It's a six-shot series over 18 months and then it's an annual booster thereafter," she said.

Colonel Cook said ideally, Airmen receive a minimum of three shots before they go, receiving an initial shot, another shot in two weeks, and shots at the four-week, six-month and 18-month marks, followed by an annual booster shot.

If Airmen do not complete the series of the anthrax vaccine, Colonel McClain said the series must be completed in the AOR.

Doctor Bledsoe said the shot is intended to keep Airmen safe when in harms way of the bacteria.

"The concern is that anthrax, which is bacteria, can be weaponized and can become an infection in the lungs," he said. "That infection is almost always fatal if untreated. The anthrax vaccine provides protection from infection in case people are exposed."

Colonel Cook said the 78th Medical Group currently has adequate doses of the vaccine on hand for those that require it and individuals who need the shot will be identified by their commanders.

"Once individuals are identified by their commanders, they are then scheduled over here to start receiving their vaccinations in the (necessary) intervals," he said.

The vaccination is now a requirement on the standard pre-deployment checklist, Colonel McClain said. Shots will be given up to 60 days prior to deployment.

Colonel Cook said the medial group has set up a database that tracks which individuals have had the vaccine. The database is available for commanders to help them better manage their Airmen's needs in this area.

Colonel McClain said that Airmen can volunteer to have the shot, which can be given on a voluntary-basis at the Immunization Clinic.

"For those that have already received vaccinations, they can volunteer to get the shot as well, and I just volunteered to get my sixth shot so I've got the full series done now," he said.

Colonel McClain said his group is fully prepared to implement the vaccine program.

Robins is working to keep Airmen informed about the vaccine, Doctor Bledsoe said.

"Because there have been concerns for the safety of the vaccine among those who received it in the past, education about the risks of anthrax and about the very low potential risks of receiving the vaccine that educational piece is a very important part," he said. "Everybody who comes over for the vaccine will be given a tri-fold that has information about the vaccine and a little bit about the disease and is given an opportunity to speak with a healthcare provider about any concerns they may have in terms of receiving the vaccine."

Doctor Bledsoe said the vaccine is a safe, effective tool that's intended to protect against a deadly illness; however, the medial group wants to make sure that people's concerns are addressed. Base healthcare providers are being educated as well to ensure they give proper information about the vaccine.

Implementation is in the initial stages and the Air Force has established a four-week timeframe, upon unit notification, for units to begin giving the anthrax vaccine to Airmen meeting the mandatory guidelines, Colonel Shull said.

The anthrax vaccine was first licensed in the United States in 1970. Since then, it has been given to those who could get exposed to environmental sources of anthrax such as service members, veterinarians, farmers and woolworkers, Colonel Shull said.

In December 2005, the anthrax vaccine was found to be safe and effective against all forms of anthrax, including inhalation anthrax.

Colonel Shull said the anthrax vaccination is just as safe as other vaccinations given over the course of people's lives.

(Editor's note: Master Sgt. Mitch Gettle, Air Force Print News, contributed to this article.)