WASHINGTON — The military’s smallpox and influenza vaccines may have caused the death of a 26-year-old soldier in December, according to a defense department report released Thursday.

Pfc. Christopher “Justin” Abston died suddenly in his Fort Bragg, N.C., barracks 16 days after receiving the pair of injections, according to the report. Medical examiners at the time blamed his death on inflammation of his heart muscle, a side effect of the smallpox vaccine.

According to the release from the Pentagon, a panel of defense medical experts reported that even though neither the smallpox nor influenza injections can be confirmed as the cause of death, their research does suggest “the possibility that the vaccines may have caused Abston’s death.”

The panel found no evidence of the vaccinia virus, the main ingredient of smallpox vaccine, in Abston’s heart at the time of his death, according to the release.

They did, however, find another potentially fatal virus, the parvovirus B19, in his heart muscle, and could not determine if it was naturally occurring or the result of the vaccines, the report said.

Troops assigned to Iraq, Afghanistan, South Korea and certain homeland defense missions involving emergency response teams, are required to participate in the smallpox program, unless medically exempted, according to a defense health official. The influenza vaccine is available to all military personnel.

According to Defense Department statistics, more than 1 million military personnel have been given the smallpox vaccine since December 2002. About 120 have developed an inflamed heart muscle or similar conditions, but Pentagon officials said until now that no one had died as a result.

Under Defense Department health rules, all troops are warned about potential side effects of the vaccines, and in the case of the smallpox vaccine, are warned to seek medical attention immediately if they develop chest pains.

Pentagon spokeswoman Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke said no changes to the vaccine program are planned in response to the soldier’s death.

“Since the inception of the smallpox vaccination program in 2002, there has been a continuous review of the safety of the vaccine,” she said.

“The smallpox vaccine was given billions of times to Americans and people all over the world in the last century. Hundreds of studies have provided thorough assessment of this vaccine,” Krenke said. “The Defense Department will continue to monitor the safety of this, and all vaccines used to protect their service members.”

Reporter Jeff Schogol contributed to this story.

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