WASHINGTON - Like protective equipment issued to troops downrange, the H1N1 flu vaccine is a measure the Defense Department is taking to safeguard U.S. military forces, a defense official said.
"We use other treatment modalities to protect people in the same way we use body armor to protect against other threats," said Ellen P. Embrey, acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs.
"The H1N1 vaccine was purchased specifically for our uniformed servicemembers so they could continue to perform their mission anywhere on the globe," she continued. "And during a pandemic, that's a real threat."
Officials at the department, which received initial allotments of the vaccine last week, said doses will be distributed in coming weeks according to a prioritized list of recipients. Vaccines first will be made available to deployed personnel, bases that receive new military accessions, such as basic training installations and the service academies, and all health-care workers assigned to military medical treatment facilities.
Immunization for both seasonal flu and H1N1 is mandatory for all military personnel and is highly recommended for beneficiaries.
"Our system to manufacture and distribute, and then put shots in arms, is the priority of the government. And [the Defense Department] has been participating with HHS very closely to ensure that we acquire sufficient vaccine to protect the U.S. military's ability to perform its mission globally," Embrey said, referring to the Health and Human Services Department.
Embrey noted that the department has long used vaccinations -- against anthrax, small pox and seasonal flu, for example -- to protect the force and preserve its ability to perform its mission.
"The H1N1 virus is unique because it targets young, healthy people 24 and under and the average age of our force is 24," she said. "So this is particularly important to us that we have the ability to protect the majority of the people who are preserving the national security of this country because if they're down they can't perform."
The department also has received several hundred vaccines from Health and Human Services for defense civilians, Embrey said. Because vaccines may be coming in relatively small numbers initially, local commanders will be responsible for determining how supplies are distributed.
"It will be up to the local commanders to determine the best balance of mission preservation and addressing the individuals who are at high risk of getting the flu whether they're a civilian in our workforce, and according to CDC, we should be paying closest attention to those at highest risk," she said, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
"As additional allotments come in over the next several weeks, there will be sufficient vaccines to give to anyone who would like to have it," she added.
Embrey said HHS allocated additional vaccines for retirees, family members and other individuals living overseas.
"So if you live in those locations and you want a shot, please come in, or if you're at high risk, please come in and get your shots now because those are being distributed as we speak," she said. "This vaccine is safe, it's effective, it's [Food and Drug Administration] approved. If this vaccine is available in your area -- get it."