U.S. troops in Middle East are lining up for smallpox vaccinations
KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait — U.S. troops in the Middle East are receiving smallpox vaccinations to prepare for or respond to a possible attack of the potentially lethal virus.
It is the first time in more than a decade that large numbers of troops will routinely receive the smallpox vaccination, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The program is intended to ensure that we can continue to serve our mission in the event a biological weapon is used against us,” Spc. Gustavo Bahena, spokesman for the Coalition Forces Land Component Command, said Tuesday. “We know there are certain terroristic governments who may have the smallpox virus and if they do, they may use it as a biological weapon.”
First in line for the shots are those trained to administer vaccines. Next come those who might respond first to a smallpox attack, as well as other hospital and clinic workers. Senior military leaders also are among the first receiving the vaccine, said Col. Larry Godfrey, Smallpox Vaccination Program manager for the command, headquartered at Camp Doha near Kuwait City.
The vaccination program began in Kuwait on Dec. 31. In addition to Camp Doha, the Army has several tent camps in the desert near the Iraq border. The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force has a camp near Kuwait City and the Air Force has two bases in the country.
Smallpox is a contagious, sometimes fatal disease. Its first symptoms include a fever and body aches. Later, it develops into a rash that turns into raised bumps on the skin, according to the CDC Web site.
It can be spread by direct and fairly prolonged face-to-face contact. It also can be spread through direct contact with infected bodily fluids or contaminated objects, such as bedding or clothing. There is no specific treatment for the smallpox disease, and the only prevention is vaccination.
Godfrey stressed the vaccine is not made from the smallpox virus itself but rather from a virus called vaccinia, which helps the body develop immunity to smallpox. After the shot, some people might develop an itchy rash on the vaccination site, which heals within 14 to 21 days.
“People cannot get smallpox by taking this vaccine,” Godfrey said. “Any reactions are treatable.”
Smallpox outbreaks have occurred from time to time for thousands of years, but the disease was eradicated after a successful worldwide vaccination program. After the disease was eliminated, routine vaccination against smallpox among the general public was halted.
U.S. troops were vaccinated during World War I and World War II and routinely from the 1940s until 1984. Between 1984 and 1990, vaccinations were provided to many recruits entering basic training, according to the CDC Web site.
The terrorist attacks in September 2001 and the subsequent anthrax attacks in the United States raised the specter of additional biological weapon attacks by terrorists. The federal government announced a new vaccination program last month.
The vaccination program comes as the United States increases its war footing in the Persian Gulf, massing the largest number of troops in the region since Operation Desert Storm. United Nations weapons inspectors remain in Iraq, Kuwait’s neighbor, searching for weapons of mass destruction, including deadly chemical and biological agents.
Although the vaccine is effective if administered shortly after exposure, vaccinations may not be feasible during wartime or emergency situations, the CDC said. Therefore, pre-attack vaccines are administered.
Roughly 12,000 troops fall under the Coalition Forces Land Component Command in Kuwait. An additional 65,000 troops are expected to deploy to the Persian Gulf region in the coming weeks. Military leaders have not said, however, exactly how many of those troops will land in Kuwait.
Most troops were already vaccinated at their home stations, but Godfrey said: “We are postured to vaccinate the remainder the force” as needed.
Troops who have medical conditions, such as certain skin conditions or immune deficiency problems, preventing them from being vaccinated will not be included in the program, Godfrey said. That could amount to up to 30 percent of the force, he said.
In the often-close quarters of Army camps in the field, Godfrey said, vaccinated troops must take special precautions to ensure they don’t pass the virus to those who haven’t been vaccinated for medical reasons.
For example, some troops won’t be able to share clothes or towels or be able to “hot bunk,” meaning use another person’s bunk when space is limited. Those precautions must be taken for 21 days after vaccination.
Godfrey said that if an actual smallpox outbreak occurred, all troops would receive the vaccination regardless of their medical conditions. The risk of severe reactions is small compared to the danger of the disease, he said.
“Smallpox has a mortality rate of 30 percent, and the remaining 70 percent who survive after having it suffer scarring or other damage, such as blindness,” Godfrey said.