The Anthrax Vaccine: Is It Safe? Does It Work?


Report at a Glance

  • Report Brief for the General Public (PDF)
  • Report Brief for Health Professionals and Policy Makers (PDF)

The vaccine used to protect humans against the anthrax disease, called Anthrax Vaccine Adsorbed (AVA), was licensed in 1970. It was initially used primarily to protect people who might be exposed to anthrax where they worked, such as veterinarians and textile plant workers who process animal hair.

Use of AVA expanded in 1991, when the U.S. military, concerned that Iraq possessed anthrax bioweapons, administered the vaccine to some 150,000 service members deployed for the Gulf War. With subsequent confirmation of an Iraqi bioweapons program, the Department of Defense (DoD) in 1997 announced a plan for the mandatory vaccination of all U.S. service members. To be phased in gradually, the Anthrax Vaccine Immunization Program began in March 1998 with personnel sent to high-risk areas, such as South Korea and Southwest Asia.

As more service members were vaccinated, however, some of them raised concerns about the safety and efficacy of AVA, and some also suggested a possible link between AVA vaccination and the illnesses experienced by some Gulf War veterans. In addition, concerns emerged regarding manufacture of the vaccine. In response to these and other concerns, Congress directed the DoD to support an independent examination of AVA.

In October 2000, the IOM convened the Committee to Assess the Safety and Efficacy of the Anthrax Vaccine to evaluate these difficult issues. The events of September 11 lent urgency to the study, and in March 2002, the committee issued its report: The Anthrax Vaccine: Is It Safe? Does It Work?

The report concludes that the vaccine is acceptably safe and effective in protecting humans against anthrax. The vaccine should protect people against all known strains of anthrax bacteria, as well as against any strains that might be created by potential terrorists or others.

However, the report concludes that advances are needed in several main areas:

  • improving the way the vaccine is now used,
  • expanding surveillance efforts to detect side effects from its use, and
  • developing a better vaccine.