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Tuesday, December 16, 1997 Published at 06:27 GMT


US troops to be vaccinated against anthrax
image: [ Washington wants its troops immunised against germ warfare ]
Washington wants its troops immunised against germ warfare

The USA says it will vaccinate all of its 1.5 million servicemen and women against the deadly disease anthrax.

The Pentagon says the risk of a biological attack using the anthrax bacterium from countries such as Iraq now outweighs concern over the possible side effects from the vaccination.

American intelligence estimates that ten countries have the capability to turn anthrax into a weapon of mass destruction. In Iraq, UN inspectors have gathered 2,000 gallons of the bacteria despite Iraqi claims that it did not have the capacity to wage a biological war.

An Iraqi spokesman for the Ministry of Culture and Information ridiculed the immunisation programme and described the move as an "escalation of the campaign of deception and exaggeration" waged by the USA against Iraq.

Initially, the vaccinations will be given to about 100,000 US troops assigned to either southwest Asia or northeast Asia, potential flashpoints where US forces face threats from Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

The plan is to carry out anthrax vaccinations within six to seven years for all 2.4 million members of the active duty military, selected reserves and civilians in high threat areas, Pentagon officials said.

It will cost an estimated $130 million, they said.

Although anthrax has never been used in warfare, Pentagon officials said it tops their list of biological threats because it is the easiest agent to use as a weapon.

Although normally a disease in animals, especially cattle, anthrax can be produced in a dry form which when inhaled by humans causes severe pneumonia and death within a week.

What makes it so lethal is that it is very hard to eradicate once it gets into the water supply and soil.

[ image: William Cohen warns Americans of the dangers of anthrax]
William Cohen warns Americans of the dangers of anthrax
The US Defense Secretary, William Cohen, recently went on television to warn Americans of its perils. Using a 5lb-bag of sugar as an example, he said, "If this amount of anthrax could be spread over a city, say, the size of Washington, it would destroy half the population."

During the Gulf War, a third of American soldiers received anthrax inoculations. The Pentagon seems to consider that this vaccine at least is not responsible for the mysterious Gulf War Syndrome. Nevertheless, Mr Cohen has ordered some precautions to be taken before the first vaccinations are carried out.

Supplemental tests are to be conducted to assure the safety of the vaccine. The military is to electronically track vaccinated individuals and a plan will be drawn up to explain the vaccinations to military personnel.

The Pentagon said the vaccine had been licensed by the US Food and Drug Administration, had fewer side effects than flu or typhoid vaccines and had been widely used since the 1970s by livestock workers and vets.

A US military official estimated that a single anthrax bomb dropped from the air over a corps-sized military unit would kill 99% of those who were exposed to it and reduce the unit's strength to 34%.

He said that if the force were vaccinated, 95% would be unaffected.

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