Sunday, August 22, 2004

Soldiers' blood may be key to anthrax medicine

Fort Campbell: Vaccinated donors

By Kimberly Hefling
The Associated Press

They can do it for love of God and country - or for the $60. Either way, soldiers vaccinated against anthrax have the opportunity to help future anthrax victims by donating their blood.

The government plans to develop an experimental treatment for anthrax from the blood of people vaccinated against it. Such a medicine has never been tested on people, but scientists think it has a good chance of working based on animal tests.

Federal health officials are aiming for an emergency stockpile that could treat about 2,700 people in case of another anthrax attack. Five people died from anthrax in 2001.

Lewis Long, a civilian readiness officer who pitched the plan to the troops this month, said many may want to do it to protect their wives and children, who haven't had the vaccine.

But there is another reason, too.

In a Fort Campbell gymnasium when troops in their Army greens were told they would get $60 for a liter of their blood plasma, many whooped and hollered. They can donate up to once a week.

Spc. Ian Cook, a 25-year-old father of two, said he took a pay cut to join the Army 18 months ago, and could use the money. Donating blood four times a month could add $240 to his $1,550-a-month base salary

The potential to help people exposed to anthrax, "that's just a little bonus, I guess," said Cook, of Las Vegas.

Depending on the soldiers' response, the blood-donor program could be spread in a few weeks to other military installations.

Fort Campbell, 50 miles north of Nashville, Tenn., was selected as the first site because a high percentage of soldiers have been vaccinated against anthrax, said Col. John Grabenstein, deputy director for military vaccines at the Army surgeon general's office. It's also near a federally approved plasma collection site in Clarksville, Tenn.

All troops deploying to Iraq, Afghanistan and other U.S. Central Command countries, as well as Korea, are required to get anthrax shots. Since 1998, 1.2 million troops have been vaccinated against anthrax.

To make the new medication, called anthrax immune globulin, or AIG, scientists will use antibodies from the soldiers' plasma, the watery part of the blood.

"We think there is a good chance that AIG would help improve survival in patients with severe anthrax diseases, but we don't know for sure," said Dr. Clare Dykewicz, a medical epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is running the program.

Antibiotics would still be used on anthrax victims, but they don't always work for everyone.

Grabenstein said the new AIG treatment could be ready within a few months. Once available, it would be given only to people infected with anthrax, not those simply exposed to it.

Early this year, the Fort Campbell-based 101st Airborne Division returned from a year in Iraq, and troops are required to remain current with vaccinations.

Participation in the blood donor program is voluntary, and not all troops are interested.

Spc. Clint Renefrow, 23, of Hays, Kan., said he barely made it through his mandatory vaccines without fainting. He said it would take a lot more than $60 to get him to donate his blood.

"I'm scared of needles," Renefrow said.

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