MILITARY HEALTH: Panel ‘Blasts’ Pentagon Record-Keeping
An Institute of Medicine committee "blasted" the Pentagon on Tuesday for "failing to improve medical record-keeping for deployed troops" and warned that if the military fails to take action, the "nation could experience another post-war mystery like the still-unexplained 'Gulf War Syndrome,'" the Los Angeles Times reports. In the aftermath of the Gulf War, "tens of thousands of veterans" complained of "chronic symptoms" including fatigue, joint pain, digestive troubles and memory impairment. But because the military failed to keep proper records on troops' prewar and postwar medical histories, where they had been stationed during the war or the illnesses and dangerous substances to which they could have been exposed, studies of Gulf War syndrome have been "inconclusive." The committee said that the government has made "little progress" in record-keeping since the Gulf War, warning that additional delays would pose "unnecessary risks to service members' health." Record-keeping remains "fragmented," as some military organizations rely on paper records and others use computerized accounts. Furthermore, records might not be kept when troops receive health services in the field. The panel stated that even though five internal and external groups have offered recommendations, the department has "dragged its feet" on making improvements. John Moxley, chair of the IOM panel and a former defense official, said that the Pentagon has been "slow to move" because it lacks a "single site within the department that has responsibility for" record-keeping. Army Col. Francis O'Donnell, a senior aide on medical readiness, said that the Pentagon has "no argument with these conclusions. ... That pretty much mirrors our own internal self-examination" (Richter, Los Angeles Times, 10/11).
Leaving Because of Anthrax
A General Accounting Office report states that the Pentagon's policy requiring service members to receive the anthrax vaccine "is causing many more pilots to leave the National Guard and Air Force Reserve than the military has acknowledged," the Washington Post reports. In December 1997, the Pentagon announced its mandatory anthrax inoculation program, aiming to immunize all 2.4 million individuals on active duty within the Guard and Reserve. But "several hundred service members" have refused the inoculations. Because of their refusals, several dozen members have been court-martialed, while others have been allowed to leave the service. According to the GAO report of 829 current and former Air Guard and Air Force Reserve members, about 25% have left the military, transferred to other units or moved to inactive status since September 1998. One-quarter of those who left the military said that the mandatory anthrax vaccine "was the most important factor in their decision to leave." Another 18% still in the Guard or Reserve said they plan to leave service within the next six months; 61% of those said the "biggest reason for deciding to leave was the anthrax program." Pentagon spokesperson Rear Adm. Craig Quigley said, "I'm sure you can find some individuals who have left the Guard and Reserve rather than proceed with their anthrax vaccination, but I don't think we've considered (it to have) a significant impact" (Ricks, Washington Post, 10/11).
Resurrecting the Smallpox Vaccine
The U.S. government has begun taking steps to protect the military, as well as civilians, from smallpox, employing a company to produce and stockpile a vaccine, Gannett News Service/USA Today reports. Before smallpox was eradicated in 1977, 10 million-15 million people around the world contracted the disease per year and up to 30% of those infected died. Those who survived "often were disfigured or even blinded" by the disease. The government's action is in response to reports that viral stocks from the former Soviet Union have been "making their way into other countries for non-scientific purposes." The CDC has six million doses of the smallpox vaccine in storage, but that is not considered sufficient to control an outbreak. Scientists expect to have the first deliveries of the vaccine for the civilian stockpile by 2004 (Neus, Gannett News Service/USA Today, 10/11).