This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 103
2001 Second Web Report
On Serendip

The Anthrax Vaccine Scare: How Inconclusive Evidence can Scar American History

Samantha Carney

Over the past month or two, fears have taken definitive shape about the threat of biological warfare as anthrax, or traces of it, have seemed to permeate every sphere of American life. The United States has entered a new era, and with it comes significant new threats, the threat of disease warfare being one of them. It is anthrax that has given shape to the fears of millions, and in the past few weeks the American public has been inundated with images of the rash the disease, the different types of anthrax, and where and who is applicable for Cipro, the antibiotic used to treat anthrax. However, the word prevention has been scarcely used. There is indeed a vaccine to prevent against anthrax infection, and yet its existence is almost as big a story as the anthrax infections themselves. Why was the word anthrax on peopleıs minds as early as six months ago? Because it was believed that the anthrax vaccine was causing more harm than good, in some cases with extreme reactions such as death. What are the cold hard facts concerning the anthrax vaccine? Thatıs just the problem: there are none.

Anthrax is a disease caused by the bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, which are most commonly found in the soil and can be ingested by goats, sheep and cattle ((3).). While animals can be infected occasionally by eating the plants from the soil, the disease is much less common for humans. There are three different types of anthrax that humans can become infected by: cutaneous, which means the infection occurred through the skin, gastrointestinal, which means the bacterium was ingested, and pulmonary, which means the bacterial spores were inhaled ((3).). Inhalation anthrax is the most dangerous and has a fatality rate of 80% or higher, while cutaneous anthrax is the most treatable with a fatality rate of approximately 20% ((3).). While inhalation anthrax is the most dangerous, it is also the most rare. In fact, there were less than twenty reported cases during the first seventy-eight years of this century in America ((10).). Dangerously enough, the beginning symptoms for inhalation anthrax are the same as the flu: general aches and pains, high temperature, fatigue, coughing and some mild chest pain ((9).). Anthrax is considered a possible weapon of biological warfare because the spores that the bacterium is made up cannot be easily destroyed and are easy to spread by releasing them into the air ((3).).

The anthrax vaccine is rare and only manufactured by the United States, Britain, and the former Soviet Union ((4).). Both the United States and Britain developed protective-antigen vaccines in the 1950s using filtered parts of strains of the anthrax bacterium ((4).). The protective antigen, which is one of the three toxin proteins produced by the anthrax bacterium, is the protective part of the United States vaccine ((4).). The problem with using this antigen, which triggers the bodyıs immune system, is that it may hold other contaminants from the cell walls of the bacteria ((7).). This same vaccine gained its license in November 10, 1970, and was used in the Gulf War ((4).). While the vaccine was used in the Gulf War for protective measures, due to the lack of threat the vaccine has not been widely used since then, except in very recent years ((4).). While the vaccine has been widely accepted, there are few conclusive reports as to its long term and short term effects on the bodyıs system. As outlined in the letter report "An Assessment of the Safety of the Anthrax Vaccine" by the Committee of Health Effects Associated with Exposures During the Gulf War," questions remain as to "the types and severity of adverse reactions, including gender differences; long-term health implications; efficacy of the vaccine against inhalational anthrax; correlation of animal models to safety and effectiveness in humans; validation of the manufacturing process; definition of vaccine components in terms of the protective antigen and other bacterial products and constituents; and identification of gaps in existing research" ((4).). This demonstrates the breadth and depth of uncertainty that corresponds with the anthrax vaccine. In fact, the assessmentıs conclusion, which was deemed temporary and inefficient but demonstrated the need for further testing, stated that the studies on the vaccineıs effects were inconclusive ((4).).

The studies were prompted by an emerging thread of people getting sick, supposedly in connection with the vaccine. While civilians do not and cannot receive the vaccine unless their jobs warrant them special attention, three years ago the military instated a program making it in all intents and purposes a required vaccination for its personnel ((1).). The program was a development in the steps being taken to protect against biological warfare, and it was planned that 2.4 million military personnel would be inoculated ((1).). On May 16, 2001, the program was put to a stop because of the disputed results and status of the vaccine by former Defense Secretary William Cohen ((1).). One memorandum stated that the anthrax vaccine "should be considered an investigational new drug" ((1).). Meanwhile, the manufacturer of the army and nationıs supply of vaccine, BioPort, has been reprimanded by the Federal Pure Food and Drug Agency for violations ((2).). The scariest part is that not only has BioPort been reprimanded, but the company has never passed an FDA inspection ((6).). Army personnel were refusing to receive the vaccine, and many had subsequently been fired, or been forced to resign if they chose not to take the vaccine((1).). In fact, 25% of the pilots in the program which required them to receive the vaccine chose to resign from their jobs ((6).). Those who became ill from what they believe to be adverse reactions to the anthrax vaccine have joined together in a lawsuit against BioPort Corp.; the lawsuit claims that the vaccine was not thoroughly tested and adverse reactions were not taken seriously enough ((2).). One victim is Tom Colosimo, a once-healthy twenty-nine year old who received the vaccination while in the Air Force ((5).). A senior official of the Air Force has admitted that Colosimo has medical problems that are a direct result of receiving the anthrax vaccine ((5).). While studies vary in their results, one Army study revealed that adverse reactions "range from 40% in men to 70% in women," and adverse reactions include bone and joint pain, blindness, blackouts, internal organ problems, multiple sclerosis, and even death ((6).). Again, while there are no conclusive studies, six deaths have occurred after receiving the vaccine due to medical problems ((7).).

It is clear that there is a problem, and steps are being taken to remedy it. However, in the meantime still others are receiving the vaccine, although no one knows the true extent of possible damage it may cause. This case has raised many important questions. How is it that while the American public is being inundated with information about anthrax, virtually nothing is known about the vaccine? Cipro, the antibiotic used to treat anthrax, is as well known now as Advil, but mysteries still surround the vaccine to prevent the disease. Also, how has the vaccine been around for almost forty years and nothing known about the adverse effects, especially as to gender differences? The horrifying part is that while the evidence is vague and undefined, there are definite problems with the vaccine, and yet hundreds of thousands of people were ordered to receive it. The government has temporarily put a halt to that campaign while drawing more conclusive evidence. If destructive evidence was concluded, potentially the largest class action suit against the United States Army in history may result. This is a great example of the power of biology in influencing human lives, and the factors that must be taken into consideration when testing various medicines and vaccines.

WWW Sources

1)"Anthrax Vaccination" on abcNEWS.com ,

2)"Anthrax Vaccine? No, Not Yet" on NewsMax.com ,

3)"Anthrax" on U.S. Food and Drug Administration website ,

4)"An Assessment of the Safety of the Anthrax Vaccine: A Letter Report" by Committee of Health Effects Associated with Exposures During the Gulf War ,

5)"A Prisoner in His Own Body" from Air Force Times ,

6)"No, You Still Donıt Want the Anthrax Vaccine. Hereıs Why." ,

7) "Search for Better Anthrax Vaccine Increases" from The Wall Street Journal ,

8)"Anthrax Vaccine Causes Gulf War Syndrome" ,

9)"Anthrax" ,

10)"Anthrax: The Facts You Need" ,




| Back to Biology 103 | Back to Biology | Back to Serendip |

Send us your comments at Serendip
© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Monday, 07-Jan-2002 13:53:30 EST