Forces face vaccine scare: Soldiers could be infected with 'mad cow' disease

Mike Blanchfield
The Ottawa Citizen (March 1999)

Maj. Dan Drew's seven months in the former Yugoslavia were hell on Earth. He survived the worst battle Canadian soldiers had fought since the Korean War when his battalion took part in a firefight that pitted his fellow soldiers against a Croat army.

But now, six years later, Maj. Drew wonders whether the most serious threat to his life occurred before he even set foot on Balkan soil.

He worries that his blood and the blood of thousands of other Canadian soldiers was accidentally contaminated with a fatal brain malady called Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. And there is no way he will ever know for sure because no detailed military records exist to show which soldiers received the contaminated batch of vaccine.

"We've been exposed to a potential death sentence," Maj. Drew says.

In January 1993, Maj. Drew was one of thousands of soldiers inoculated against Hepatitis A with a batch of gamma globulin immune serum that may have been tainted with CJD, the human form of the so-called "mad cow" disease, the Citizen has learned.

The serum is made from blood products. And the military fears a particular batch given to Canadian troops may have been contaminated by a Red Cross blood donor who had the rare, but fatal disease. The lot in question -- 4,260 vials of it -- was given to Canadian soldiers between January 1992 and June 1994, according to a Dec. 15, 1997, internal military report.

If Maj. Drew was exposed, he realizes it might be decades before he knows for sure. CJD has an incubation period ranging from 18 months to 30 years. No test is available for CJD, which causes dementia and degeneration of body functions.

"There is no way that either the individual or the system could determine who got that lot number," said Capt. Lynne Chaloux, a military spokeswoman.

As a result of this incident, Capt. Chaloux said, the Forces tightened the procedures it uses to record the origin of the vaccines its gives to its personnel. Now, each soldiers' personal immunization record contains the lot number of the Hepatitis A vaccine, and the information is now added to a computer data base.

"If this happens today," explained Capt. Chaloux, "we can say 'here you go, here's your lot number.' "

In an ironic twist, Capt. Chaloux, the official appointed to comment on this story, will live under the same cloud. "I could have this because I got that vaccine in that time frame," said Capt. Chaloux, who realized this only last night when she was contacted by the Citizen.

This is the latest in a series of health controversies plaguing the Armed Forces. Questions remain about the quality of the anthrax vaccine given in 1998 to peacekeepers in the Persian Gulf. And last fall, it was disclosed that Maj. Drew's colleagues in the Balkans were also unwittingly exposed to radiation and hazardous PCBs.

It has not been proven that CJD can be transmitted to humans through blood or blood products. But that possibility deeply worries health officials.

The Canadian blood system was thrown into panic four years ago when it was discovered a carrier of CJD had donated blood. The Red Cross ordered the largest recall of blood products in its history in 1995, after a Vancouver woman told authorities that her father, who suffered from CJD, had donated blood 21 times beginning in 1989.

Again, in September 1997, the Red Cross issued a blood recall because of a donor who was found to have CJD. The agency warned that 50,000 people could be at risk. After that recall, the Canadian Red Cross contacted the Forces to tell them some of their soldiers might have been affected.

Copyright 2000 Ottawa Citizen