The anthrax vaccine is a truly bad idea. The U.S. has wasted billions of dollars on it, and it just seems to go from bad to worse. Now a government panel has recommended that we test the vaccine on children, which raises a whole new array of ethical questions.
Don’t get me wrong: vaccines are the greatest boon to public health of the last 200 years. We eradicated smallpox, we’re close to eradicating polio, and childhood deaths from infectious diseases are far, far lower thanks to the vaccines we give our children. These are truly wondrous advances.
But the anthrax vaccine is different, from start to finish.
For starters, anthrax is not infectious. [What he is trying to say is that it is not contagious from person to person. It is, however, infectious, in that it does infect people and animals--Nass] This might come as a surprise to those who’ve only heard about this through the media. An anthrax “outbreak” is impossible, because the B. anthracis bacterium cannot spread from person to person. Vaccines against diseases such as measles, mumps, and influenza protect millions of people each year, because these are common infectious diseases that spread easily between people.
Anthrax was never a public health threat, and it isn’t one now. We don’t need an anthrax vaccine. And by developing and then promoting one, the government is abusing the good will that the public has towards vaccines, possibly endangering the public health further by playing into the hands of the anti-vaccine movement.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) does not recommend that children be vaccinated against anthrax. In fact, it doesn’t recommend that anyone get routine vaccinations against anthrax:
“Vaccination is recommended only for those at high risk, such as workers in research laboratories that handle anthrax bacteria routinely.”The CDC recommendation makes sense. Therefore I was stunned to learn this week that the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) recommended that we launch an anthrax vaccine testing program in children (see page 37 of their report).
The NBSB report admits that
“Currently, U.S. children are not at immediate risk from anthrax and would not benefit directly from pre-event AVA [anthrax vaccine] administration.”It also states that
“There is no known benefit to vaccinating children in the absence of an imminent threat from exposure to B. anthracis other than potential future benefit.”Case closed, right? We can’t conduct vaccine trials in children if there’s no benefit.
Somehow, though, even after these statements in their own report, the NBSB managed to recommend testing the vaccine in children. As justification, they present this claim:
“Preparation for a national and potentially global threat from the use of B. anthracis spores by terrorists is a major priority for U.S. national security.”This is a massive overstatement. A national and global threat? Anthrax is not infectious, as the NBSB knows. The only people affected in an attack would be those directly exposed to the bacterium, likely only a handful of people. We don’t vaccinate millions of people just to protect a hypothetical few: this is an abuse of the public trust in vaccines.
So why are we wasting billions of dollars to develop, test, and administer a vaccine against something that hardly infects anyone? The anthrax vaccine development project was on its way to being cancelled by the U.S. before the 2001 anthrax attacks. In an ironic twist, the likely perpetrator of the attacks, Bruce Ivins, was allegedly motivated by his interest in reviving the anthrax vaccine program. If so, then he succeeded in a big way: in 2004, the government announced Project Bioshield, which dedicated $5.6 billion to biodefense, much of that going to anthrax vaccine research.
I’m not surprised that if the government dedicates billions of dollars to biodefense, and distributes it to companies and universities who then become dependent on these funds, then advisory panels such as the NBSB will recommend an ever-increasing number of security measures. After all, some of the members of that committee are funded by biodefense dollars, and if we cut the funding, their own livelihoods might suffer.
Speaking to the Washington Post, panel member Ruth Berkelman said:
“We need to know more about the safety and immunogenicity of the vaccine as we develop plans to use the vaccine on a large number of children in the event of a bioterrorist’s attack.”No, we don’t. We don’t need to know about the safety of the vaccine in children because it would be unethical to test it on them. And if there is an attack, we shouldn’t respond by vaccinating “a large number of children,” because anthrax doesn’t spread from person to person. This is one vaccine we can do without.
Monday, October 31, 2011
Thanks to author Steven Salzberg, who worked sequencing anthrax for the FBI letters investigation, writing in Forbes:
Posted by Meryl Nass, M.D. at 8:48 PM