Surviving a global pandemic and watching the worldwide response to develop a vaccine quickly shows the importance of properly testing vaccines for both efficacy and safety. Even though there has never been a huge outbreak of anthrax, the anthrax vaccine is one that has spent a great deal of time in the public eye over the years.
Anthrax is naturally occurring, but it is also one of the first modern bioweapons. Anthrax was used by the German army on livestock and animals that were intended to be sold to Allied troops.
This anthrax attack helped lead to the development of international treaties on biological and chemical weapons. The fear of an anthrax attack carried on for the rest of the 20th century and culminated in the anthrax terror attacks of 2001.
Because it was widely believed that Saddam Hussein would willingly use chemical weapons on an invading force (he is the man who gassed his own citizens, so probably a good guess). Because of this concern, the US chose to vaccinate all active-duty combat troops before sending them to Iraq and Kuwait.
Biology of the Vaccine
Many vaccines use either a weakened or dead version of the virus for which they are vaccinating to prevent the disease. The immune system is triggered by the dead virus to respond. Basically, it is teaching the immune system what the virus looks like, so it knows how to respond when it is exposed to the real thing, and it fights it off.
Because Anthrax is so dangerous, it is one of the varieties of vaccines that does not include any of the live or dead vaccine cells. The anthrax vaccine contains an antigen protein that triggers an immune response in the body. This prepares the body for exposure to the virus, but it has no risk of anthrax infection, even in the immunocompromised.
Complications of Anthrax Vaccine
The Anthrax vaccine, as it exists now, has the same low level of risk as any other fully vetted and researched vaccine. Complications include the standard allergic-type responses:
- Soreness and redness at the injection site
- Skin reaction
- Muscle aches
The vaccine occasionally includes the stronger immune response of:
- Swelling of the lips, throat, and tongue
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain and heart palpitations
All of these relatively rare reactions are representative of allergic responses to vaccine ingredients. Most can be treated with a simple antihistamine.
In the early 90s, when The US was sending many American troops to Iraq and Kuwait, the anthrax vaccine contained an oil-based adjuvant named Squalene. Squalene was intended to boost the immune response, and theoretically make the vaccine more effective. In many vaccine recipients, it led to the immune system going into overtime and has potentially caused some autoimmune difficulties.
After the Gulf war was over, many veterans began to complain of a large array of symptoms, all of which could be classified under the umbrella of autoimmune responses. These symptoms included anything from arthritis to blindness.
Because the sufferers of the quickly dubbed “Gulf War Syndrome” did not share any specific set of symptoms, and there was no evidence of chemical weapons being used in the war, the condition was treated as non-existent by the VA, and many of the disability claims were denied.
As the science behind Squalene was learned, many people realized that the autoimmune responses were a side effect of the vaccine itself.
In summary, the anthrax vaccine works by exposing the immune system to an antigen that triggers a response. The body produces an immune reaction to prepare you to fight future exposure to the virus.