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Anthrax vaccinations mandatory again for high-threat deployments

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. (AFRCNS) -- Anthrax vaccinations became mandatory March 19 for Air Force reservists who have or will deploy to a high-threat area for more than 15 days.

Mandatory vaccinations are limited to Airmen in specific high-threat areas (U.S. Central Command area of responsibility and the Korean peninsula) for more than 15 consecutive days.

"Each vaccine lot is authorized for release by the Food and Drug Administration before shipment," said Lt. Col. Tim Bennett, Air Force Reserve Command public health officer here. "No other product is approved by the FDA to prevent anthrax before exposure."

The assistant secretary of defense for health affairs approved the Air Force plan for resuming mandatory anthrax vaccinations. The new program allows voluntary vaccinations for people who have received one or more anthrax shots and wish to continue the series.

After an extensive evaluation, the FDA reissued a final order on the license status and again determined that the vaccine is licensed for the prevention of anthrax, regardless of the route of exposure. Taking the vaccine is consistent with good medical practice and personal protection, the colonel said.

The vaccine requires a series of six shots over the course of 18 months and a booster shot every year after that.

According to U.S. intelligence agencies, inhalational anthrax is the most likely bioweapon because anthrax spores are cheap and easy to produce. Anthrax spores can be stored for a long time, can be dispersed in a variety of ways and are difficult to detect. Inhalation anthrax is highly lethal and anthrax spores can cause widespread illness and death among unprotected people.

According to the Air Force implementation plan, people who started the vaccination series and were deferred are not required or advised to start again at the beginning. They will pick up the shot series where they left off.

"It is important not to compress this dosing schedule. Individuals should not get vaccinated too soon. Their bodies need time to build antibodies to the vaccine," Colonel Bennett said. "If they get doses too close together, they may not get the full protective value of the vaccine. Vaccinations should begin, to the extent feasible, up to 60 days before deployment or arrival in higher threat areas to provide the greatest protection."

People who are no longer deployed to a higher-threat area or nor assigned to designated special mission roles can voluntarily take the later vaccine doses.

Some people may qualify for a medical exemption including people with pre-existing medical conditions and those who develop reactions while taking the vaccine series.

"Most people tolerate anthrax vaccination without significant reactions," Colonel Bennett said. "As with most vaccines, some may experience temporary pain and swelling in their arm at the site of the injection.

"Adverse events after vaccination should be reported to a health care provider, especially before receiving any additional vaccinations," he said.