Originally created 01/24/02

Military women may have to take pregnancy test before anthrax shots



WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon may start asking military women to take pregnancy tests before getting anthrax shots because a study suggests vaccinations have resulted in some having babies with birth defects.

Officials are worried some of the study's data may be faulty and have ordered a review, Lt. j.g. Mike Kafka of the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery said Thursday.

But because the review could take months, the Defense Department's top health official is asking each military service to come up with a plan within two weeks to assure pregnant women in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines do not get the immunizations in the meantime.

Dr. William Winkenwerder, Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, asked the services to devise a way to enhance the screening of women of childbearing age, "potentially including pregnancy testing," to prevent pregnant women from getting the vaccine.

The Pentagon in 1998 ordered the vaccination of all 2.4 million members of the active and reserve military to protect them against anthrax bacteria that, when inhaled, can cause death within a few days. It started with those deployed to Korea and the Middle East. A shortage of doses last year forced a cutback so only troops on "special missions," which officials declined to identify, were vaccinated.

Throughout the program, health care workers were supposed to be asking women if they were pregnant in order to avoid vaccinating expectant mothers.

Winkenwerder's memo, sent Wednesday, reiterated the policy and said "it should be reinforced to all medical personnel."

It's unclear whether women who got the shots weren't asked or simply didn't know they were pregnant at the time.

The study also seemed to indicate that some women might have gotten the vaccination after their first trimester - by which time they would probably have known they were pregnant. This prompted officials to question the data, Turner said.

While the review is under way, the Pentagon is not releasing details of the study and its findings, Kafka said. He said only that it relied on computerized data rather than the actual medical records of women or interviews with them.

Under the immunization program, more than 525,000 service members have received one or more shots. The six-shot regime is given over 18 months, followed by a booster each year.

Hundreds of military personnel have refused to take the shots, and legal or disciplinary action was taken against them. They say it could be connected to complaints of chronic fatigue, bone and joint pain, memory loss and other problems.

Aside from the issue of pregnant women, the Pentagon has said the shots are safe.

The Pentagon says the immunizations are a necessary precaution because nations hostile to the United States have produced anthrax weapons.