The Washington Post

Anthrax vaccine for children: A real fright in time for Halloween

A vial with an individual dose of the anthrax vaccine. (Thor Swift)

Case in point: The fright fest that is the Department of Health and Human Services’ consideration of whether to test the anthrax vaccine on children.

Advisors have suggested the HHS sponsor testing to determine at what dosage the vaccine would be safe and effective for children. Doctors need to know if and at what level children’s immune systems can handle it. There is no plan to expose children to anthrax.

Critics charge that such testing is too risky. Here’s an excerpt from The Post’s story by Rob Stein published Friday:

“Anthrax is a life-threatening infection caused by a toxin-producing bacterium. It has been long considered a bioterrorist’s likely choice because it is relatively easy to produce and distribute over a large area and can contaminate areas for long periods with dormant spores.

The federal government has spent $1.1 billion to stockpile anthrax vaccine to protect Americans in the event of an attack. While antibiotics would help protect those immediately exposed, the vaccine would defend against lingering spores. The vaccine is made from a piece of a strain of anthrax that does not cause the illness.

In 1998, the Pentagon began a controversial immunization program for military personnel that was challenged in court over questions about the vaccine’s safety and reliability. Currently, shots are required for personnel assigned to bioterrorism defense activities and some other special units, as well as those deployed 15 or more days in the Middle East and some nearby countries, and in South Korea.

The vaccine has been tested extensively in adults and has been administered to more than 2.6 million people in the military. But the shots have never been tested on or given to children, leaving it uncertain how well the vaccine works in younger people and at what dose, and whether it is safe.”

So the question becomes: Which fear takes precedence? The fear of an experimental vaccine or the fear of a possible anthrax attack?

This debate may look like two other similar debates: the ongoing argument over the safety of widely-used childhood vaccines and the resurgent argument over whether schools should mandate girls be vaccinated against the human papillomavirus (HPV).

Yes, there are vaccines and government mandates involved. There the similarities end.

The general-use vaccines, including the one to inoculate girls and boys against HPV, have already been tested. The medical community is in almost unanimous agreement about their benefit in protecting children against existing harm.

The government mandate concerns philosophical questions: Who should have the right over these decisions? What message does a vaccination send to a child? Or, it might be argued, what message does a refusal to vaccinate send to a child?

What the anthrax debate has beyond all that is the unknown. Since the vaccine has not yet been tested and an anthrax attack remains a threat, not a reality, it’s hard to tell which is the bigger risk: To test before a possible attack or to wait for the attack and then experiment. It’s unclear exactly where the danger looms larger. Experts can’t decide. Parents are understandably leery. It’s a much a scarier debate.

What do you think? Should the government begin testing the anthrax vaccine on children?


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