Colorado mother waging war on military's anthrax shot

Article Published on DenverPost.com Monday, November 15, 2004

By Elizabeth Aguilera
of the DenverPost.com


Lori Greenleaf of Morrison says she’s pleased a judge halted military anthrax vaccinations last month but worries about those already adversely affected.

When the news she had waited years to hear finally arrived, Lori Greenleaf was strangely unmoved.

A federal judge had ordered the military to stop forcing soldiers to be injected with an anthrax vaccine. But while the court had essentially said last month that Greenleaf was right about the vaccine's problems, she didn't feel like a winner.

"It's bittersweet because I don't think it'll hold," said the woman described in a recent book as the "Dear Abby of Anthrax Vaccine." "And all the people they hurt already don't get any restitution. I surely do hope the judge's order stands, but we've had so many disappointments you hate to get your hopes up."

Greenleaf, 46, of Morrison first took issue with the anthrax vaccination program five years ago when her son became one of the first sailors to receive it.

She started asking questions. Before long, Greenleaf had become a clearinghouse on the anthrax vaccine for service members around the world.

At one point she was in contact with more than 7,000 service members via e- mail and telephone.

She served as their counselor and confidante. She fretted for them when they were punished or court-martialed for refusing the vaccine. She visited them in hospitals when they accepted the injection and became ill.

Although the Pentagon insists the vaccine is safe and it has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, doctors have documented cases of vaccine- related autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.

Since March 1998, the military has injected more than 5 million doses into 1.3 million people. The vaccine is given in a six-shot series over 18 months. More than 3,000 adverse reactions to the vaccine have been reported, and at least half a dozen deaths have been linked to the vaccine, according to anti-vaccine advocates and their attorneys.

Nearly 600 people have refused the vaccine, according to estimates. The Defense Department reports that before Aug. 15, 2000, 441 refusers were given nonjudiciary discipline such as being docked in pay, reduced in rank or given restriction. Others were given a less-than-honorable discharge. Since then 51 have been court-martialed for refusing.

Many of them have been in touch with Greenleaf. From a single desktop computer in her Morrison home, she has done years of research, eventually connecting with independent doctors who she learned were doing their own research on the vaccine.

Doctors at Tulane Medical School had been testing the blood of service members since 1994 and finding antibodies to fight an oil called squalene in many of those they tested. They had also tested service members' blood before and after the vaccination and found they developed the antibodies after injection.

In 2000, Dr. Pam Asa found squalene antibodies in veterans who were given certain lots of the vaccine, including Greenleaf's son. The FDA backed up her findings with its own tests of five of the six lots.

Scientists say squalene has been known to cause problems for decades in animals. Squalene is a natural oil in and on humans, but when injected, it triggers an autoimmune reaction that then looks to expel all squalene from the body, Asa said.

Just how the squalene could have gotten into the anthrax vaccine is the source of contention between the scientists and the Pentagon.

Several researchers, including Asa, suspect the Department of Defense added squalene in an experiment to see whether more anthrax vaccine could be given in a shorter period of time - protecting soldiers sooner for battlefield duty.

The Department of Defense denies adding squalene to anthrax vaccines or conducting any experiments on members of the armed forces. They suspect squalene might have gotten into certain batches of the vaccine because of fingerprints left on lab equipment.

Asa doesn't buy it.

"If you know the dangers and hazards of this stuff in people and how it causes strokes and cardiac anomalies and how it affects memory and causes seizure disorders, you don't do this to people going into combat," said Asa, an immunlogist and visiting professor at Tulane Medical School.

On Oct. 27, a lawsuit filed by six service members and civilians against the Department of Defense ended when U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan declared that the government had failed to properly license the vaccine and ordered the military to discontinue the forced injection into soldiers without informed consent or a presidential waiver. The Pentagon is expected to appeal.

Also last month, one of the first books about the controversy was published. "Vaccine A," by former NBC and Fox News correspondent Gary Matsumoto, outlines the fight over the vaccine, explains the medical concerns and conveys the difficulty of stopping the program. He calls Greenleaf the "Dear Abby of Anthrax."

"Lori is an unsung hero; she did an extraordinary service for a lot of people," Matsumoto said. "She showed a lot courage and toughness; she would not back off. Don't make Mom mad, that is the message."

The activism displayed by Greenleaf brought her much unwanted attention from the Department of Defense. She was kicked out of Fort Carson for passing out fliers and criticized by Army officials after she testified before Congress.

She didn't care, as long as people were getting the message.

And they were. Everywhere, soldiers, sailors and pilots were passing her e-mail address to one another. They shared packets of information she sent, all paid for out of her own pocket.

"I don't have a problem with the vaccine; it's the experimenting that I have an issue with," Greenleaf said. "When it comes to jeopardizing anybody's health, I think they should have a choice. They shouldn't be experimenting without informed consent."

Retired Army Chaplain Dave Hodge of Carlsbad, N.M., came down with rash, fatigue, joint aches and other symptoms of lupus after he was injected with anthrax vaccine in the late 1990s. His blood tested positive for squalene antibodies, and he had colorectal cancer.

"Knowing that they are still doing it makes me angry because they know what it's doing," he said. "Lori has been a tireless proponent for us; there have been times she's taken the brunt of people telling her she was going up the wrong tree, and she's taken the abuse and hung in there."

Collect calls from as far away as Japan and at all times of the day from concerned service members and their families kept her house hopping. She had to hire two helpers to run her day care so she could focus full-time on the fight against the vaccine.

She even hosted a sailor who went AWOL over the vaccine and talked him into going back and dealing with the military.

"It's unfortunate what they do to our sons and daughters when they sign on the dotted line," Greenleaf said. "They are owned; they have no say."

Col. John Grabenstein, deputy director of the Army's Military Vaccine Agency, calls Matsumoto's book a lie and the debate exaggerated concern.

"We don't conduct illegal experiments on the troops; we use only licensed vaccines," he said from Breckenridge while on vacation.

He dismisses Asa's and the FDA's findings of squalene in the lots as traces left by fingerprints. Squalene, also found in the liver, is a precursor to cholesterol.

"We believe the most likely explanation for those very small amounts that were found was incomplete washing of the lab glassware," Grabenstein said. "We don't believe there was squalene in the lots; we believe the tester left a little bit of his own fingerprints behind."

Asa counters that the fingerprint had 13 other fatty acids besides squalene and none showed up in the vaccine. Naked hands do not touch any of the vials, vaccine or tubes during manufacturing or chemical analysis, she said.

"The judge's order will save lives," Asa said. "This whole thing needs to be investigated. This is awful; we don't know how many people have received this adjuvant."

The Pentagon will do what it can to resume the vaccinations, Grabenstein said about the judge's order.

"With a licensed drug, DOD has the prerogative to require vaccinations of the troops, and we do that because our people fight as teams and an individual does not have the right to jeopardize his teammates," he said.

For now, members of the armed forces are not required to get the vaccine. Still, it's a hollow - and, Greenleaf fears, temporary - victory for soldiers who already have been waylaid by the vaccine.

"The government will never admit to any of it. I don't think they'll take care of the people who are sick," Greenleaf said. "I hope I'm wrong, but I'm basing this on how they've dealt with Vietnam vets and Agent Orange guys and the Gulf War vets who are sick."