Army repeals vaccination requirement for top enlistment bonuses amid outbreaks of contagious diseases

The U.S. Army has ordered commanders to refuse reenlistment if the soldiers fail to get vaccinated against diseases that have reemerged in recent years, potentially blocking the soldiers’ careers from coming back.

A directive issued Nov. 14 bars U.S. troops, including airmen, from reenlisting with their current service-issued vaccinations if the soldiers do not have a required immunization certificate.

A Defense Department announcement dated Wednesday said the ban was implemented after an Army medical investigation determined “at least 8,400 armed forces and Defense Department civilian employees have come down with infectious diseases after not being vaccinated.”

The reinstatement of banned vaccinations includes tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, mumps A and B, whooping cough, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, varicella (chickenpox), varicella (chickenpox) for retired service members, and hepatitis A (Haemophilus influenzae type b) and B (Influenza) for all active duty military who have not completed their required booster dose of the vaccine as of Dec. 31, 2017.

“The use of vaccine-preventable illnesses is one of the greatest threats we face in the health and safety of our military personnel,” Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, deputy chief of staff for military health affairs, said in a statement. “What we are doing today sends a clear message to our soldiers, airmen, sailors, Marines and Coast Guardsmen: if you do not protect yourself and your fellow servicemembers, you risk not only your own life, but the lives of your fellow service members and those you leave behind when you are deployed.”

The military is the only branch of the armed forces that offers compulsory vaccination as an enlistment requirement. Most of the other military services allow for a military medical exemption from all vaccinations that may not be carried out for a variety of medical reasons, including religious or philosophical beliefs.

According to an Oct. 30 Army Criminal Investigation Command internal email obtained by Military.com, one commander reported that the situation of unvaccinated soldiers in the organization was growing and that he was having an increasing number of cases of equine encephalitis, hepatitis A and diphtheria among his enlisted personnel.

There were also seronegative serogroup D tetanus cases and measles cases among the troops, the email said.

“I was assigned to reenlist the troops to prevent [immunizations],” the email to a leader said. “From a contract stand point, I trust that my commanding officers will take care of their contract with personnel and these service members as needed in the absence of my action.”

The executive order instructs commanders to “conduct inquiries by the commanding officer to determine whether an individual service member has completed vaccination against polio, measles, mumps, rubella, mumps A, and B, varicella (chickenpox), hepatitis B, tetanus, diphtheria, tuberculosis (TB), as recommended by the department’s policies and regulations, or another immunization … for purposes of adverse selection and vaccine-preventable diseases.”

Additionally, commanders are urged to “personally revoke any confirmation of service (FIT), command commission or release granted to an individual soldier who refused their immunization.”

Capt. Joshua Abbott, a spokesman for U.S. Army Medical Command at the Pentagon, said Army doctors and case managers would work with those caught up in the ban to determine what to do next.

“All soldiers are being investigated and supported through the order as it relates to further vaccine actions against individuals that allegedly have not been vaccinated,” Abbott said. “There is no threat that vaccinations could be used as a way to bully current or future soldiers into getting additional vaccinations in violation of the order. This new directive on vaccine requirements is a true policy shift and therefore not related to vaccination for inoculations for personal or philosophical reasons.”

Katherine Zavadski, a military health care communications specialist with the Department of Defense who specializes in military and veteran health and nutrition issues, said the new directive is clearly a step forward in seeking to find the cause of the outbreaks in the armed forces.

“[It’s] certainly something we’re going to need to be doing,” she said. “It’s a great example that somebody is paying attention to the outbreaks and a way to make sure that we’re not taking measures that might harm some of our troops.”

Nick Ut / AP

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