WASHINGTON -- Roll up that sleeve, soldier. The Pentagon is ready to begin inoculating all 2.4 million men and women in the military and reserves against deadly anthrax. Troops in Southeast Asia and Korea will get picked first, starting next week.
Until now, only U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf have been protected against the biological menace that's 99 percent lethal if inhaled. It is in the arsenal or being developed as a weapon by at least 10 nations, the Defense Department said Friday.
"It's the poor man's atomic bomb," said Rear Adm. Michael Cowan, deputy director of medical readiness for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "It's ubiquitous. It's everywhere. It's easy to get ahold of. It's easy to grow."
No anthrax bomb has ever been dropped during warfare, but the United States is taking no chances since a safe and reliable anti-anthrax vaccine has been available for use since 1970, approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
"This is an efficient, effective and safe way to protect our forces against an emerging threat," Defense Secretary William Cohen said in a statement.
Cohen ordered development of a program to inoculate troops against anthrax in December. The first series of six shots over 18 months began this spring for those serving in the Gulf because chances were deemed highest for an attack by Iraq.
All military forces are expected to be immunized by 2004 or 2005, the Pentagon said, with those headed to hots spots going first. An annual booster shot is needed.
Cohen and Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both rolled up their sleeves to set an example. They each have two shots to go in the series.
So far, 48,000 troops have received inoculations and only seven have reported adverse reactions, said Dr. Sue Bailey, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. Fifteen members of the military refused the shots, she added. Two have been discharged and the others received lesser punishments, the Pentagon said.
"We need to provide the commanders in chief a healthy, fit and ready force," Bailey told a news conference, calling the $130 million vaccination program "critical" to protecting troops in the face of biological and chemical weapons development.
American military forces, who during World War I were the target of nerve gas attacks in Europe by German troops, have plenty of physical equipment to counter threats, from masks to protective gear. But gear can fail and attacks can't always be detected.
"It's for your safety," Cowan said, comparing the inoculation to wearing a helmet.
Refusals to accept inoculation may stem from a reluctance generated by the use of experimental vaccines during the 1991 Gulf War. Some troops blame subsequent illnesses on drugs administered to counter biological and chemical exposure.
Matt Puglisi, director of the American Legion's Persian Gulf War task force, said the fear factor is likely to diminish if commanders fully explain the safety of the vaccine.
"These kids know they may face bullets and mines," Puglisi said. "With a little hand holding, a needle isn't going to scare them off."
Anthrax, a disease normally associated with animals such as sheep or goats, can be used as a weapon when spores are released into the air and people breathe them in.