When we hear the word “anthrax” these days, many of us remember the deaths that occurred when anthrax was sent through the mail in the days, weeks, and months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The attacks shut down the U.S. Capitol, mailrooms, and newsrooms across the country.
However, the U.S. military was aware of this type of biowarfare almost a decade earlier. In its attempts to protect service members, the Department of Defense mandated the anthrax vaccine. Although many reported side effects–and some suspected a link between Gulf War Syndrome and the vaccine–the VA does not acknowledge a presumed link. It is still possible, in some instances, for the resulting conditions and disabilities to qualify for VA benefits.
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In this article about the anthrax vaccine
What is anthrax bacteria?
Before discussing the vaccine’s side effects, here is a quick overview of why anthrax attacks can be so serious and potentially deadly.
Anthrax is caused by a bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, which forms spores. In naturally occurring instances, these spores infect animals first, and humans can contract the disease if they come into contact with these sick animals through a wound in their skin or by eating an animal infected with anthrax bacteria.
When it’s used for bioterrorism, it can be used in powder form, and the recipient(s) can contract anthrax by inhaling the spores.
Anthrax can cause:
- Skin reactions, such as small blisters, bumps, and ulcers
- Shortness of breath
- Body aches
- Fever and chills
- Painful swallowing
In fatal cases, the bacteria will cause sepsis and the body will no longer be able to respond to new and old infections.
Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program
During the late 1980s and early 90s, U.S. intelligence agencies reported that it was likely that Saddam Hussein was creating bombs and missiles loaded with Anthrax prior to the military’s involvement in the Gulf War.
A vaccine, BioThrax, manufactured by BioPort (now known as Emergent Biosolutions), was found to be effective against anthrax when it is absorbed through the skin, but not when the anthrax is inhaled.
The Department of Defense launched the Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program (AVIP) and mandated that any military members being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan would receive the BioThrax vaccine. The DoD issued a full mandate for all 2.5 million military personnel in 1997 and for all civilian DOD personnel in 1998.
In 2004, a U.S. federal judge halted the mandatory vaccination program until the vaccine was approved for inhaled anthrax.
BioThrax was not FDA approved for the inhaled anthrax bacteria until 2015.
Side effects of BioThrax
In 2002, the General Accounting Office released the Survey of Guard and Reserve Pilots and Aircrew, which surveyed service members who had received the vaccine under AVIP.
The report found that more than 84% of those surveyed experienced some level of side effects after receiving the vaccine. Prior to this report, the estimated rate of side effect occurrence was only 34%.
Of the respondents, approximately 20% had reactions that lasted more than seven days. Reactions included limited motion and pain in the arm, joint pain, fatigue, and memory loss. The symptoms ranged from mild (such as a commonly occurring reaction on the arm where vaccines are given) to severe.
Among the documented severe reactions were:
- Difficulty breathing
- Fast heartbeats
- Swelling of lips and throat
- Nervous system reactions (although many dispute the connection between the vaccine and reactions of this kind)
Researchers noted some similarities among the reactions to BioThrax and the symptoms of Gulf War Syndrome. They also found another similarity–both groups of veterans had high levels of antibodies to squalene, a substance derived from shark liver oil that is used in vaccines to accelerate immune responses.
Squalene in the vaccines
A 2000 study found that 95% of the personnel diagnosed with Gulf War Syndrome GWS had anti-squalene antibodies. In the same year, it was discovered that anti-squalene antibodies (ASA) were present in 47% of personnel who were receiving certain lots of the vaccine in the immunization program. This was compared to 0% of ASA presence in military personnel who received different lots of the vaccine. This means that some of the lots may have contained squalene while other lots did not.
The effects of squalene are unclear. While many have tried to connect the adverse reactions from BioThrax to squalene and soldiers with Gulf War Syndrome, the National Institutes of Health published a study in 2009 questioning the link of the effects to squalene. The study concluded that many people have naturally occurring levels of squalene that are higher than what is present in vaccines and that vaccines containing squalene do not increase the concentration of naturally-occurring squalene in the bloodstream.
Can reactions to the anthrax vaccine be claimed as a VA disability?
Veterans seeking VA disability benefits must first prove a service connection between BioThrax and their symptoms.
The road to receiving a disability rating for conditions caused by the anthrax vaccine can be a long one. According to a 2000 report by the Institute of Medicine, “there is inadequate/insufficient evidence to determine whether an association does or does not exist between anthrax vaccination and long-term adverse health effects.”
However, in some instances, veterans may be awarded disability due to anthrax vaccine side effects.
In one 2021 case, the Board of Veterans’ Appeals concluded that a veteran was presenting with symptoms similar to Multiple Sclerosis that were “at least as likely as not related to the anthrax vaccine.”
In this case, the veteran submitted evidence from medical literature that the vaccine could be responsible for permanent autoimmune and brain dysfunction.
If a veteran is awarded VA disability for a vaccine-related disorder, it would be based on the ratings of the disorder or disability caused by the vaccine.
Working with Woods and Woods to file a claim for disability caused by the anthrax vaccine
Proving a disability caused by the mandatory administration of the anthrax vaccine can be a tough hill to climb. You may qualify for VA compensation due to any side effects you can prove could have only been caused by receiving an anthrax vaccine.
At Woods and Woods, we’ve helped thousands of veterans with their disability and appeals process.
Contact our team to get started.
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FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Yes, however, you must present evidence that connects a military vaccine and your symptoms. In some instances, veterans may be awarded disability due to anthrax vaccine side effects.
When you call Woods and Woods, we’ll go through a long series of questions to accurately represent you to the VA. If we take your case, we’ll work on getting your C-File and we’ll look through it for proof that you were vaccinated with the anthrax vaccine. You don’t have to pay us unless we win.