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Soldier faces threats from military after refusing anthrax vaccine
Julie Weisberg
Published: Monday September 17, 2007


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A soldier serving in Iraq who is stationed in Baghdad says he has faced “threats” and “intimidation” from his Army superiors – including the possibility of forced inoculations – after he refused to take the military’s controversial anthrax vaccine.

Private First Class Leif Hamre, 22, is currently serving out a Field Grade Article 15, a non-judicial punishment for disciplinary offenses, for refusing to take the Pentagon’s anthrax vaccine, BioThrax, earlier this summer.

According to Hamre, 22, the military gave him an ultimatum in late June: Either take the mandated six-shot anthrax series or face military punishment. He was given 24 hours to decide.

After conducting several hours of research into the drug and its history of triggering serious adverse reactions, the Minnesota native concluded that the “vaccine was dangerous” and “should probably still be in a lab right now for further testing.”

He decided to refuse it.

In March, RAW STORY revealed that Walter Reed is investigating links between the vaccine and life-threatening autoimmune diseases. Hundreds of US servicemembers have refused the shots, fearing the side-effects experienced by some 80 percent of the soldiers who receive them, according to a 2002 General Accountability Office report.

But the Army has not taken Hamre’s “no” as its final answer.

“The tactics they have used to coerce me into taking the shot are unregulated, unscrupulous and downright un-American,” Hamre wrote in a recent open letter to family, friends and others who are campaigning against the military’s mandatory anthrax vaccine program. “They have tried to turn my platoon against me in various ways (which is not totally unsuccessful). Along with the more common tactics like intimidation and threats (including the possibility of a forceful inoculation). I can only imagine what will come as I continue with this.”

During a recent interview with RAW STORY, Hamre’s mother, Mary, said that after her son refused the anthrax shot series he was assigned extra duty, taken off missions, significantly dropped in rank and pay scale, and confined to a certain area on the base – all while working an 18-hour work day, seven days a week.

Making matters even worse, she said, is the difficulty the family has had in trying to communicate with Leif since he refused the shots. Baghdad remains a volatile and unstable city, and the electricity is still very unreliable, frequently cutting in and out, and is only on for certain portions of the day. Hamre is pictured with Iraqis at right.

This has made speaking over the telephone to Leif sporadic at best, leaving the family to interact with him through a MySpace page.

Facing the possibility that he could be permanently dismissed from the military because of his refusal to take the anthrax vaccine has been hard on her son, Mary said, especially since Leif has been proud to serve his country and follow in the footsteps of his father, who also was in the Army. Mary, 55, lives in Minnesota and works as a massage therapist.

“They try to break them down... but someone has got to take a stand,” she said.

The Army did not respond to repeated requests for comment, even after several extensions.

A troubled vaccine

BioThrax is the only FDA-licensed vaccine for anthrax in the United States. The Pentagon has used it for the military’s mandatory anthrax vaccination program for the last ten years. Although the military continues to publicly claim the vaccine is “safe and effective,” thousands of soldiers have suffered adverse reactions.

The vaccine’s troubled history has made many soldiers wary of the required inoculations.

“It is natural for people to be concerned with medicines they are not familiar with,” Col. Randall G. Anderson, director of the Military Vaccine Program, said in an email to RAW STORY last week. “The DoD continues to educate our forces with a variety of products, such as individual briefings and trifold pamphlets.”

“Additionally, there is a great variety of medical misinformation available on the Internet,” he continued. “That is why the DoD focuses on providing facts about the disease and vaccine, based on science from credible organizations like the Institutes of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and prevention.”

A federal judge ruled in 2004 that the military’s mandatory administration of the vaccine was illegal because the Food and Drug Administration had not approved its use for inhalation anthrax, only for anthrax contracted through the skin. After FDA approval, the judge allowed voluntary injections. The Defense Department resumed mandatory shots again in March. The Pentagon continues to defend its efficacy and safety.

“I'll say once again, the vaccine is safe and effective,” former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs William Winkenwerder said last year.

The Pentagon, however, has at least four separate research studies investigating the vaccine’s often debilitating side effects.

And even BioPort’s insurance company, Evanston Insurance, has questioned the product’s safety. Last December, Evanston filed suit against BioPort in federal court for what it termed BioPort’s “material misrepresentations,” alleging that the pharmaceutical company knew about but failed to disclose “incidents, conditions, circumstances, defects, or suspected defects” related to the vaccine’s safety.

Evanston has assisted and reimbursed the company for legal costs associated with BioPort’s defending itself against numerous lawsuits filed by service members who claim they have been seriously injured by BioThrax.

BioPort initially filed a motion to dismiss the case, but that motion was denied earlier this year, and the case continues to move forward in the Michigan federal court system.

Cause of vaccine’s side effects unknown

It remains unclear what within the drug is triggering such severe autoimmune reactions in many of the soldiers who take it. The Army has yet to publish any information or findings related to its several research studies on the vaccine’s adverse reactions.

Although some have pointed to previous problems with the vaccine’s manufacturing process and stability, many feel the more likely culprit is the use of the experimental adjuvant -- or immune enhancer -- squalene. Traces of squalene were found in several batches of the anthrax vaccine several years ago.

Squalene, an oil-based adjuvant that is often used to boost the effectiveness of experimental vaccines at Army and NIH research centers, has not yet been approved by the FDA for use in public vaccines because of safety concerns. The adjuvant is frequently used by researchers to deliberately trigger severe autoimmune reactions in mice and other animals for research projects.

Hamre said when he began asking his own questions about the vaccine and how it is stored at his Baghdad base’s medical aid station, he not only found that the clinic was violating the Army’s own implementation standards regarding storage temperatures, but met stiff resistance to his queries from superiors.

“The result of asking questions today about a quality control issue with their storing equipment got me more than a few dirty looks and even an under-the-rug threat to my safety,” Hamre wrote.

Mother defends son’s decision

Although his mother said his future in the military is uncertain, Hamre said it is important for him to continue to refuse the vaccine and question its necessity, safety and efficacy, in hopes his struggle will make a difference in protecting the well-being and health of future Americans who choose to serve their country.

“I believe as an American soldier you are expected to follow orders and put yourself in harms way but unnecessary safety risks should not be part of the accepted risks one is asked to face,” Hamre wrote. “We are being forced to accept chemicals into our already weary bodies that have caused the suffering of thousands of individuals; of course those people are easily dismissed by the government because they took a ‘safe’ drug.”

“One thing bothers me, though,” he added. “I am an American citizen too, with rights I thought we were fighting to protect.”

Leif entered the Army when he was 20, which was two years this July. He is scheduled to conclude his service in the autumn of 2008. His unit, however, is slated to rotate out of Iraq and return home in December, where they will be stationed in Anchorage, Alaska.

Leif will serve in Alaska until his term is up next year.