Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Fourteen in a Million

September 21st, 2009 · 10 Comments

Given our recent, brain-bending encounter with the yellow fever vaccine, we’ve had a sharper eye for tales of preventive treatments gone awry. As a result, we just had to share this troubling tale of a Missouri Marine and MILVAX:

It wasn’t a bullet or roadside bomb that felled Lance Cpl. Josef Lopez three years ago, after just nine days in Iraq.

It was an injection into his arm before his Marine Corps unit left the United States.

It left Lopez in a coma, paralyzed and unable for a time to breathe on his own. He can walk now, but with a limp. He has to wear a urine bag, has short-term memory loss and must swallow 15 pills daily to control leg spasms and other ailments.

Yet the Springfield, Mo., man does not qualify for a special GI benefit of up to $100,000 for troops who suffer traumatic injuries.

Lopez suffered a rare reaction to the smallpox vaccine. The vaccine is not mandatory, but the military strongly encourages troops to take it.

Even though his medical problems would not have occurred had he not been deployed, the benefit was denied.

Just how unlucky was Lopez? According to the CDC, the odds of a serious reaction are somewhere between 14 and 52 in one million. Strangely, though, paralysis is not listed as one of the most dire side effects; we wonder whether that paralysis stemmed from Lopez’s post-vaccination treatment, during which time he was placed in an induced coma.

As for Lopez’s woes with the military bureaucracy, we instinctively side with the little guy here. Though the Pentagon seems to have plausible deniability due to the voluntary nature of the smallpox vaccination, we think there’s an irresistibly coercive element to strongly recommending the treatment. Honestly, how many deployed troops turn down the smallpox vaccine? Especially since the Pentagon is so gung-ho about insisting on the vaccine’s safety.

By stiffing Lopez, won’t the military just make other troops more wary about consenting to the vaccination? Isn’t miserliness counterproductive here?

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10 Comments so far ↓

  • Jordan

    Especially after the debacle of the anthrax vaccines administered to military personnel at the beginning of the decade, you would think they would be more generous.

    http://www.dailypress.com/news/national/bal-te.anthrax12oct11,0,1882319.story

    Also makes it for the best that I never got around to asking for a smallpox vaccine after freaking myself out during the course of a high school independent project about bioweapons.

  • Captured Shadow

    I side with the little guy on this one too. It was voluntary but still, why even offer it? Only the Soviets have access to small pox and they are unlikely to use it as a weapon.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    Yeah, I was puzzled by the “strong recommendation,” too. I remember there being a lot of FUD re: weaponized smallpox a while back, but that’s obviously not something within the reach of mere terrorist organizations. I guess I understand the wisdom of a “better safe than sorry” approach if you’re the Pentagon, as you don’t want to be accused of cutting corners should the unthinkable occur. But cases such as this should make them think twice about the wisdom of that policy.

  • Jordan

    Well, there were a lot of worries when the Soviet Union broke up that bio-weapons scientists would go where the jobs were, much like nuclear weapons scientists did. However, I’m guessing that the intersection between organizations that how enough money to run sufficiently well-equipped research facilities and people who are crazy enough to release bio-weapons (they’re pretty likely to come back and bite you in the ass) is pretty small. States that have the money are going to be more interested in nuclear weapons as deterrents. Groups of crazy people like Aum Shinrikyo didn’t actually have enough money or expertise to effectively deploy biological weapons (their attempts in Japan were pretty pathetic, the sarin attack not withstanding). Weaponizing bugs is a lot harder than you might think.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Yeah, I hear you on the challenges of weaponizing bugs–or any small organisms, for that matter. A magazine piece I’m working on now has a bioterrorism aspect, and I was surprised to learn what a struggle it was. The U.S. Army spent years on one particular problem that struck me as relatively simple, and they never even got to beta.

    I guess that revelation should make me sleep a bit better at night–or at least focus my anxiety on suitcase nukes instead.

  • captured shadow

    Jordan, Aum Shinrikyo is a great example. A group with serious brainpower, serious money and a Soviet Union that was breaking up quickly, and they still couldn’t get more than Sarin to work. The counter example is the US Anthrax attacks, but then anthrax does not spread from person to person….

  • captured shadow

    Oh, and I forgot to say anthrax is actually not to hard to treat with anti-biotics

  • Jordan

    @captured shadow

    Aum actually tried to release anthrax in 1995, but it was so ineffective that no one really noticed. Trying to grind spores into the proper size to penetrate deep into the lungs, disperse properly and not die in the process is the work of major research efforts. Their efforts with botulism toxin, one of the deadliest substances known to man, were similarly ineffective. Even with such deadly substances, they weren’t able to do much.

    http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/eid/vol5no4/olson.htm

    The US anthrax attacks by contrast were targeted at individuals rather than trying to infect masses of people. That’s a much easier effort to effect because of the higher concentrations of spores that the target is likely to be exposed to. And even then, as you pointed out, as long as the infection is caught early enough, antibiotic therapy is usually more than enough to deal with the problem.

    With all that said, they are real threats worth paying attention to. It’s good to be prepared, but we also shouldn’t overestimate the threat.

  • Ell

    No comment on risk or policy but just had a dear journo friend return from a rush assignment in Bali – a little more than a week later he has a temp of 43C and a raging case of Typhoid. Hospitalised and crook as a dog. Very nasty business to be sure.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Ell: Yikes. Best wishes to your pal for a speedy recovery. The good news is that typhoid is eminently treatable with antibiotics, so he should be on the mend soon.

    Your tale made me double-check my own situation re: the typhoid vaccine. I def. took the oral version (Vivotif) a little less than three years ago, before my trip to Burma, so I should be alright through 2011. Good to know.

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