Thousands of members of the Royal Navy, army and Royal Air Force have rejected the MoD’s strong recommendation that they accept jabs to protect against chemical and biological attacks.
If war breaks out, the majority of forces personnel who would fight in the Gulf would do so without protection against an anthrax attack.
Their decision – which comes as Britain prepares to deploy a further 14,000 soldiers to the Gulf tomorrow – will acutely embarrass ministers because it suggests soldiers, pilots and sailors do not believe government assurances that the vaccine is safe.
Last night, opposition politicians accused the government of mishandling its vaccines policy and jeopardising the lives of servicemen and women.
Within the Navy, which is central to Britain’s military build-up in the region, the refusal rate is as high as 72%, the MoD has confirmed.
Over half of RAF personnel and a quarter of Army have also rejected the MoD’s medical advice. The government is desperate to minimise British casualties in another war against Saddam Hussein.
Concern about vaccination has been growing within the armed forces as a result of publicity about the plight of Gulf War veterans.
The government still refuses to officially recognise Gulf War Syndrome, despite claims by veterans that 500 have died and over 5,000 may be suffering from the syndrome, which they blame on being inoculated against biological weapons.
A recent industrial tribunal ruling accepted a link between the anthrax vaccine given to a 32-year-old Scottish soldier in 1991 and his osteoporosis and depression, which he blames for the break-up of his marriage.
The symptoms experienced by former Army Royal Engineer Alex Izett could not be blamed on anything he witnessed or experienced in the Gulf because, although he was on standby for service, he was not sent there.
Within a few years of his vaccination, Izett developed stomach ulcerations, depression, brittle bones and violent mood swings which led to him striking his wife.
He told Scotland on Sunday: “I asked at the time what was in the vaccines and I was told, ‘You don’t need to know.’ I trusted them. I didn’t think my government would do anything that would harm me.
“Later I became withdrawn and aggressive to the point that even a fly on the wall would annoy me. I have no trust in the British government. They have taken away everything I ever had: my livelihood, my marriage and my health, and yet they have still not learned from their mistakes because they are still administering these vaccines.”
Similar concerns in the US, where anthrax vaccinations are mandatory, have led to an exodus by highly trained and experienced pilots from the services to avoid the vaccine.
Opposition politicians and veterans campaigners voiced grave concerns about the British vaccination programme. Tory defence spokesman Bernard Jenkin said: “People obviously feel that Gulf War Syndrome is far worse than anything they are going to get from the enemy. The government has completely failed to build confidence in their vaccination advice.”
The MoD confirmed that its medical officers currently recommend strongly that all personnel receive anthrax vaccinations, which the government insists are safe. The ministry refused to rule out mandatory jabs in future.
An MoD spokeswoman said: “We think it is safe, but like any other medicines there are side effects. There is no evidence of long-term effects. We want those serving in the Gulf region to have access to the very highest level of protection available.”
But Maria Rusling, who manages the National Gulf Veterans and Families Association, said she sympathised with the servicemen and women who had turned down the vaccines.
“The government has not learned from its mistakes. They must prove that this vaccine is safe and I don’t believe they have,” she said.
In response to the high refusal rate among military personnel, Rusling claims some in the service have been warned that ignoring the MoD’s advice to accept jabs could jeopardise their career prospects although this is denied by the Ministry.
Tony Blair is expected to announce tomorrow that over 14,000 British soldiers and at least 150 Challenger II battle tanks will be sent to the Gulf to prepare for war as he steps up the pressure on Iraq.
That will take Britain’s military presence in the region to around 25,000 personnel as the UN continues to scour the Gulf for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.