By Ian Thompson
TRAVIS AFB — If it was any other vaccination, Air Force Reserve Master Sgt. Clarence McNamer figures he wouldn’t have had half the problems he did.
But since his medical problems could relate to the controversial anthrax vaccine, McNamer, 49, has been through the wringer to first get his hair loss, sores, shaking and other problems treated and then get his medical insurance to pay for it.
“It was like the book had not been written yet to diagnose an anthrax problem,” McNamer said. “I still don’t know for sure whether it was the anthrax (vaccine).”
That’s made it hard to get an estimated $11,000 in medical bills paid. He had to go to civilian doctors for help and wants the Air Force to reimburse him. The Air Force will only say, in general, that military personnel need to get any visits to civilian doctors authorized before the visit occurs.
The Air Force Reservist and member of the 349th Air Mobility Wing’s 349th Aircraft Generation Squadron figures things started going wrong in early June 2000 shortly after he got his fifth shot in the anthrax vaccine regimen.
His wife noticed handfuls of hair falling out, leaving sores on the quarter-sized bare spots.
“I started feeling bad and my hair started falling out,” McNamer said.
McNamer figured the fault lay either with the vaccination or the jet fuel he came in contact with while working on the Travis Air Force Base flightline.
He started seeing Air Force doctors, but they couldn’t stop the hair loss. One doctor attributed the hair loss to male pattern baldness, McNamer said. By the end of August, his scalp was completely stripped of hair. He also lost his eyelashes, chin growth and nose hairs and suffered from memory loss, vision problems and muscle pain.
McNamer turned to his personal civilian doctor who in turn referred him to a dermatologist and then to University of California, Davis, Dr. Mohammed Al-Bayati, a pathologist specializing in work-related diseases.
Tests ruled out aviation fuel exposure, age or an autoimmune problem as reasons why McNamer lost his hair.
When the doctor asked if he had recently taken any vaccinations, “the light came on,” McNamer said.
The doctor figured the vaccine activated the production of new cells, causing a zinc deficiency that could have prompted McNamer’s hair to fall out.
“My health has improved and I have started to feel better,” McNamer said.
While his health seems to be on the upswing, “I am trying to get things back to normal and I need to get my medical bills paid.”
McNamer got a waiver in January freeing him from taking any more anthrax vaccinations after convincing the Air Force that the sudden, complete loss of his hair was due to an allergic reaction to his fifth anthrax vaccination.
His health insurance carrier, after getting initial reports saying his hair loss was due to male pattern baldness, declined to cover his bills.
“The only other course of action was to bill the Air Force,” McNamer said.
He wants the Air Force to reimburse him for the $11,000 he spent to convince the Air Force it was the vaccination and not an onset of sudden middle-age hair loss. He also wants to get back 130 hours of annual leave and sick leave he used for exams and consultations with doctors.
While the Air Force’s Surgeon General’s Office declined to comment on the specific case, it did state Air Force members need to get preauthorization from their primary care physician before going to outside civilian medical care.
The 349th AMW’s Public Affairs Office referred questions about the matter to the base’s Tricare office. Tricare is the military’s HMO provider.
The 349th AMC did decide that McNamer’s hair loss may have been the result of the vaccination, but the mid-February ruling was made seven months after McNamer started seeing outside specialists and doctors.
McNamer is still concerned about long-term effects of the shots, even though he now has his hair back and medical clearances to fly again after a year restricted to the ground.
Even after this, McNamer is still not against anthrax
vaccinations and praises all that the Air Force has done for him.
“I am happy with what the Air Force has given me and I have a good job,” McNamer said. “I just want to get my bills paid.”
Ian Thompson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.