MEU leads anthrax vaccinations

8 Nov 2002 | Sgt. Pamela A. Kershaw

"I love that burning sensation," exclaimed Lance Cpl. Nickolas A. Bellamy after receiving his second of a series of six anthrax vaccinations.

Serving as a 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit radio operator, Bellamy and more than 2,200 other Marines and sailors starting receiving the vaccine Oct. 28 in accordance with the anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program resumption. 

With the 26th MEU preparing to deploy in March, the unit qualifies under the new Department of Defense policy to immunize military personnel assigned to or deployed for more than 15 days in a high threat area. This includes emergency-essential DoD civilians and contracted personnel.

All personnel here currently deployed or preparing to deploy to a high-threat area, to include the three Marine Expeditionary Units, will receive the vaccine, according to the II Marine Expeditionary Force preventative medicine officer, Cmdr. Byron B. Hendrick.

The DoD released guidance on the AVIP reinstitution June 28. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said the vaccinations will protect America's sons and daughters serving the country.

"Given the deadly events of last fall and what we know of the threat of anthrax as a bioweapon, we are taking action to provide protection to all service members who are at greatest risk," Wolfowitz said about the anthrax vaccine. 

Wolfowitz also said DoD will share available vaccine supplies with the Department of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies to address possible domestic use.

According to the June 28 DoD brief, the AVIP resumption came into effect five months after the Food and Drug Administration approved the facilities and vaccine manufacturing process. Bioport Corporation in Lansing, Mich., is the only U.S. manufacturer of the anthrax vaccine. The FDA first approved the vaccine in 1970, but because of facility and processing renovations the administration reviewed Bioport.

The DoD, in conjunction with other federal agencies, plans to buy the entire production output in order to maximize the level of protection and treatment possible for all U.S. citizens.

Hendrick said there has been no difficulty here receiving the vaccine ordered.

"We have received adequate supplies for all personnel that require vaccination," said the Mountain View, Ga., native.

The 26th MEU commanding officer, Col. Andrew P. Frick, prepared his Marines and sailors for injections by asking Hendrick and 26th MEU medical officer Lt. Cmdr. Richard H. Jaddick to brief the "warriors" beforehand about the program.

Frick ensured his troops knew if they elected not to take the shot, it would not put them in a 'non-deployable status.' He explained that refusal of the vaccine is a violation of a lawful order and falls under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for disciplinary action.

Frick said he considers himself very lucky that no 26th MEU service members declined the vaccination. He said initially he knew of three Marines who were hesitant, but all three complied after training and guidance.

While it's still unclear where 26th MEU's upcoming deployment will take the unit, Frick feels the vaccine has made his unit even more prepared for the unknown.

"It's an easy, painless way to raise our readiness. Hopefully, we will never have to use it. I consider it an extension of our protective gear," he said.

According to the secretary of defense guidance, anthrax is an attractive weapon of mass-destruction for America's enemies. It is highly lethal, and relatively easy to use in large quantities. Hendrick said without treatment more than 99 percent of those exposed to inhalation anthrax die.

Hendrick said in 1979 at a biological warfare plant in Russia, a breakdown in procedure occurred while changing an air filter. A few grams of anthrax spores were released in the air. Sixty-eight people died and animals 40 miles downwind were found dead with the same diagnosis. 

"Anthrax is a real threat, and this is our response," said Hendrick, who completed his vaccinations in 2000.

Hendrick encourages and stresses to everyone the vaccine is safe.

"If it wasn't safe I wouldn't receive it or feel comfortable recommending it to other people," he said.

Hendrick's involvement with the AVIP started in 1998, when the program began. He said he encourages everyone to ask questions before jumping to conclusions about the vaccine's safety.

26th MEU is not the only unit here currently receiving the vaccinations. On Nov. 4, Brig. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, 2d Force Service Support Group commanding general, was first in line for the needle at the French Creek Gymnasium. Most of his 2nd FSSG Marines are currently in a deployable status. Lehnert said if his Marines needed the vaccination, so did he.