If you want to draw attention to a problem, try hiding it. That's the strategy of several military bases when it comes to the H1N1 vaccine.
Shortly after the Pentagon announced that all Armed Services personnel would soon be facing a mandatory H1N1 vaccination program, I started receiving email from soldiers, airmen, marines and sailors because of a previous story I had written on the anthrax vaccine. Mandatory vaccine programs are a sensitive subject in the military, so it's not a huge surprise that swift and visceral reactions to the program gained speed.
With a vaccine that was so new and little known about it, like many Americans, troops were heading to the web to find answers to their very legitimate questions -- not only for themselves, but for their families who have the option of receiving the vaccine on base. What they found instead is that several websites and blogs with key information asking critical questions had been blocked from their viewing.
Among those that were repeatedly mentioned as blocked sites are the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), the site for Gary Matsumoto's book Vaccine-A, and vaccine expert Dr. Meryl Nass. NVIC is a national, non-profit founded in 1980s that, through public education, advocates "vaccine safety and informed consent protections in the mass vaccination system." Matsumoto's site contains a forum in which thousands upon thousands of service members have posted testimonies regarding their experiences with the anthrax vaccine. And Nass is one of the world's foremost experts on vaccines who has testified in front of Congressional committees -- and, I might add, never has had a malpractice suit brought against her.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC), the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sites, however, are all available for military personnel. The official word from governmental agencies is welcome but critics, regardless of whether they were considered experts, are not.
According to the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, the only blocking of websites Pentagon-wide was in 2007, when a number of heavy-trafficked sites that "used lots of bandwidth" had to be denied to reduce the wear on networks "to ensure they continued to be available for mission requirements."
That turns out not to be entirely accurate.
Some of you may recall the reporting earlier this year when wired.com's Danger Room blog reported that the Pentagon was blocking not only YouTube, but even their own TroopTube.
When TroopTube launched last November, for instance, it was billed as an answer to the bandwidth and security concerns surrounding other video sites. TroopTube "crunches video files into several sizes and automatically plays the one that best suits viewers' Internet connection speeds," the Associated Press reported at the time. And "a Pentagon employee screens each [upload] for taste, copyright violations and national security issues."
Nonetheless, the public affairs office at the Pentagon further instructed me that "anything that may be blocked at the Service or base level should be addressed there -- it's a local issue."
Since I had the most information (and the most complaints) about Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, that's where I directed my questions. After repeated email and phones calls, nearly two weeks later a spokesperson for Wright-Patterson told me that:
The Air Force general policy is all websites are placed into categories based upon their content and intended audience. All unethical categories are blocked as are any sites that are uncategorized. Currently the sites referenced are blocked because they are uncategorized.
A wholly unsatisfactory answer that side-stepped the question, I took this statement to mean that blocking these websites had nothing to do with bandwidth use as in the Pentagon statement and everything to do with the content.
I asked the follow-up question: Since this is a recent decision to block them, why would they not just be categorized rather than being uncategorized? As a result, they would not be blocked for educational purposes of service personnel who have a mandatory H1N1 vaccination program?
Wright-Patterson did not respond to this question.
Making sure that servicemen and servicewomen consent to the vaccine and are informed is apparently not a concern for the Department of Defense. But the message is very clear for one service member who contacted me: "All you need to know is what we're telling you, so shut up and take the vaccine with no questions asked."
Nass, one of the experts whose site has been blocked, points out the real shame in all of this: "It's unfortunate that the service members who are defending our civil rights are not afforded the same consideration."
Note: If you're on a base that has blocked websites related to the H1N1 vaccine, I'd love to know what sites are blocked and what base you're on. You can post the info in the comments below or contact me directly.
UPDATE (11/18/09): See my piece on how the Air Force is now requiring that children in on-base daycare to get the vaccine.