Anthrax is a potentially life threatening bacterial infection that can occur in humans and animals. Typically, doctors give the vaccine to people who may be at risk for exposure to anthrax, such as military personnel and workers in certain other high risk occupations.

The spore-forming bacteria that cause anthrax, Bacillus anthracis, are found naturally in the environment. They can spread through contact with infected animals, contaminated animal products, or by breathing in the spores of the bacteria.

Most people who receive the anthrax vaccine do not experience any serious side effects. However, in rare cases, people have reported severe reactions.

As a result, several lawsuits were filed against the government over side effects allegedly caused by the anthrax vaccine.

Read on to learn about the anthrax vaccine, the controversy surrounding its use, and more.

An image of a syringe of vaccine in front of a line of men.Share on Pinterest
A navy medical technician fills a syringe with Bacillusanthracis as sailors line up for their inoculations on January 6, 2003 at sea aboard the USS Constellation. U.S. Image credit: Navy/Getty Images

The anthrax vaccine is a shot that helps protect against anthrax, a serious bacterial illness.

People can get anthrax by breathing in spores, consuming animal products that carry the bacteria, or getting anthrax spores via a cut or scrape on the skin. This can happen after contact with animals or their products that carry the bacteria, including wool, meat, or hides.

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the United States military views anthrax as a possible biological weapon, which is why military personnel often receive the vaccination.

People receive 5 doses of the vaccine over 18 months. After this, they require an annual booster to maintain protection against the bacteria.

Anthrax is rare, and most people never come into contact with it. Therefore, the FDA does not recommend the vaccine to the general public. It is only recommended for certain individuals at high risk of exposure.

There are four groups of people who are at risk of anthrax exposure and may require the vaccine. They include:

  • laboratory workers who handle B.anthracis
  • workers who handle potentially infected animals or their products
  • military personnel, if the Department of Defense (DoD) deems appropriate
  • first responders who may be at risk of exposure to anthrax in the event of a bioterrorism attack

Historically, the use of the anthrax vaccine has been controversial. People have been concerned about its safety and the ethics of mandatory vaccination in the military.

In 1991, the first large-scale anthrax vaccination program began for United States military personnel deployed during the Gulf War. Then, in 1998, the DoD began the mandatory Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program (AVIP). At this point, the FDA had not yet tested the vaccine against inhaled forms of anthrax.

Despite concerns about possible health effects and lack of adequate research, consent was not required or requested from people receiving anthrax shots.

Following vaccination, soldiers began reporting side effects, and some were severe enough to leave them unable to perform their duties. Those who complained often faced disciplinary action, and one soldier sued the military for violating their free speech rights.

In some cases, military leaders suspended the vaccination program because of the side effects.

Because of the problems cited by vaccinated military personnel, the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) performed a survey finding that the rate of adverse events was significantly higher than stated by published vaccine information.

There were concerns over squalene, a substance added to some of the batches of the anthrax vaccine. It was supposed to increase the vaccine’s effectiveness but caused the immune system to overreact in some people.

Some military personnel filed lawsuits, arguing that the anthrax vaccination was experimental. In one case, a federal court agreed the vaccinations were experimental and suspended their use without informed consent.

In response to concerns, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) created the Anthrax Vaccine Research Program (AVRP) in 1999 to study the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine. The AVRP has conducted several large, high quality studies, showing that the vaccine is safe and effective.

According to the CDC, most people who receive an anthrax vaccine do not experience any serious problems.

Side effects are usually mild and go away within a few days. They may include:

  • redness
  • swelling
  • tenderness
  • bruising
  • itching
  • muscle aches
  • headache
  • fatigue

A person should contact their doctor if they experience any severe or unusual side effects after receiving the anthrax vaccine.

Likewise, people who receive the vaccine because they have had exposure to anthrax and feel ill should tell their doctor, as they might need immediate medical care.

The anthrax vaccine is deemed safe and effective in protecting people from anthrax infection. However, there have been some concerns about its safety in the past, and its use remains controversial.

Extensive research has addressed these concerns, and the CDC now recommends the vaccine for people at risk of exposure to anthrax. This includes military personnel, first responders, and people who work with anthrax in laboratories.