Military Health: DOD's Vaccine Healthcare Centers Network

GAO-07-787R Published: Jun 29, 2007. Publicly Released: Jun 29, 2007.
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Highlights

Members of the military have long been required to receive immunizations. The Department of Defense (DOD) estimates that over 2.2 million servicemembers receive at least one mandatory immunization annually. Immunizations are provided through the administration of vaccines, which contain "antigens" or parts of a specific virus or bacterium that are used to trigger an immune response to protect the body from disease. DOD's immunization requirements vary depending on several factors, such as a servicemember's branch of military service, location, age, and type of personnel, such as newly enlisted recruits, those conducting high-risk travel, and reserve forces. No immunization is completely safe. Like all individuals, servicemembers may experience side-effects as a result of their immunizations, known as adverse events. Most adverse events consist of relatively mild reactions, such as swelling near the site of the immunization. However, a small number of individuals may experience more severe reactions, such as some servicemembers who received the anthrax and smallpox vaccines. Some servicemembers who received these vaccines experienced severe reactions such as migraines, heart problems, and the onset of diseases including diabetes and multiple sclerosis. Since then, the adverse events associated with these vaccines have caused concern among members of Congress about the safety of some mandatory immunizations. In response to three congressional directives, DOD established the Vaccine Healthcare Centers (VHC) Network in September 2001 with initial funding provided by the Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The purpose of the VHC Network is to meet the health care needs of servicemembers receiving mandatory immunizations. DOD placed the VHC Network under the command of the Army Surgeon General. However, neither DOD nor the Army provided the VHC Network with a mission statement. As a result, VHC Network officials defined their own mission. In addition, since 2001, the VHC Network--which is not included in DOD's long-term budget planning--has relied upon funding provided on an annual basis from a variety of sources. Its lack of both a recognized mission and a specified funding source caused uncertainty among VHC Network officials about its future existence and organizational structure. Two recent laws--the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2006 and the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2007--contained provisions that required us to examine several issues related to the VHC Network. In response, and after consultation with the committees of jurisdiction, this report describes (1) the efforts the VHC Network is undertaking to address the needs of servicemembers arising from mandatory military immunizations and (2) how DOD has supported the mission of the VHC Network.

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