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.
"They shouldn't be left with catastrophic health problems because the military is unwilling to acknowledge that vaccine reactions occur more frequently then they believe," Fisher said.
In 2008, ACAM2000 replaced the aging Dryvax supply and the remaining Dryvax vials were destroyed. The warning label on ACAM2000 lists Myocarditis and Pericarditis as a possible side effect.
The link was also documented in this government funded study.
Side effects would happen within weeks of getting the vaccine but its lead author Renata Engler admitted in an email to Action News Jax: “Myocarditis from any cause may not be diagnosed during the acute event and can be mistaken for heart burn or fatigue."
When we asked the VA to tell us about how many veterans have received benefits from vaccine-related injuries, the agency said: "We have no tracking mechanism for injuries due to smallpox (or any other) vaccination."
The VA did provide Action News Jax with the number of veterans granted or denied benefits for Pericarditis and Cardiomyopathy. Between 2007 and April of 2017, more than half of all claims for those two conditions were denied.
Kelly said he believes his dedication to duty -- working through the pain without complaint -- has sentenced him to a life in pain with no support from the country he served without question.
"I can't believe that I did the right thing and at the end of the day I’m not taken care of," Kelly said.
There are programs for civilians, first responders and military members who were injured by the smallpox vaccine but Kelly said he was told he doesn't qualify because too much time has passed.
The Countermeasures Injury Compensation Program told Action News Jax that claims must be filed within a year of the vaccination.
Kelly also does not qualify under the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program because the smallpox vaccine is not a “covered vaccine.”
According to the VA, the small pox vaccine is now “only administered to military deploying to Korea and some special forces.”
We brought Kelly’s story to Florida Congressman Al Lawson, who expressed an interest in developing a collaboration to address late reporting issues related to the smallpox vaccine.
More information about Vaccine Compensation Funds: