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Veterans Denied Medical Benefits for Smallpox Vaccine Injuries

Action News Jax Investigates: Veterans denied benefits for what they call vaccine-related injuries

by: Paige Kelton, Action News Jax


A local veteran was denied benefits for an illness he says was caused by a vaccine he was ordered to take.

An Action News Jax investigation uncovered the federal government is refusing to compensate some veterans who suffered debilitating side effects from the smallpox vaccine they said they were forced to get.

Smallpox was eradicated in 1977 and routine vaccinations ended a few years later. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the federal government began inoculating some volunteer first responders and active duty military.

The Department of Veterans Affairs says between 2002 and 2008, 1.7 million service members were vaccinated, including Jacksonville’s Sean Kelly.

“The whole time I’m thinking, ‘If you do something for your country, someone’s going to make sure you’re all right,'” Kelly said. “And that completely did not happen. It was like a slap in the face.” Kelly, a local marine, deployed to Iraq in 2008 and said he was given a battery of vaccines, including ACAM2000.

“When I first started having symptoms from the small pox vaccine, they told me it was heartburn,” Kelly said. “And it wasn’t one of those things where I’d say, ‘I don’t want to go out on patrol because I have heartburn.'” Kelly was a machine gun section leader for the Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 9th Marine Regiment – a group of men trained to be tough.

Mark Bailey served at Kelly’s side. He said his symptoms also started during deployment.

“I got tightness in my chest, I chalked it up to heartburn and took my omeprazole and went on my way,” Bailey said. After seeing Kelly’s posts on Facebook about his health, Bailey reached out.

“I said, ‘What’s going on?’ (Sean) said, ‘I have inflammation in my heart.’ And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I was just told I have the same situation,'” Bailey said. Records document Kelly’s complaints of chest tightness, which was described as heartburn.

He didn’t know at the time that chest pain is a possible side effect of the small pox vaccine.

It wasn’t until years later that Kelly said he made the connection.

“It all clicked,” he said. “I said, ‘Something is wrong. It’s been wrong this whole time. And my wife said, ‘You need to go to the hospital.'” Kelly was diagnosed with Pericarditis, or inflammation of the heart, a documented side effect of the smallpox vaccine. He couldn’t work and spent weeks in the hospital.

He said he filed for VA benefits for a vaccine-related injury and was denied.

“It can be quite difficult, especially if you don’t have the records that reflect it,” Dr. Bradley Bender, chief of staff for the North Florida South Georgia Veterans Health Systems, said. When asked how many vaccine-related cases of Myocarditis or Pericarditis he’s seen, Bender said none.

“There is no blood test that you can do to say this is Myocarditis related to smallpox vaccine,” Bender said. Barbara Loe Fisher is director of the National Vaccine Information Center.

“That’s just ridiculous, the smallpox vaccine is the most reactive vaccine that has ever been used,” Fisher said. She said she believes the government is hiding behind the facts.

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