Ethan Lindenberger, the Ohio teenager who sought out vaccinations after he was denied them as a child, recently testified before Congress about why his parents became anti-vaxxers. The trouble, he believes, stems from the pervasiveness of misinformation online.
There is evidence that 'educating' people with facts about the benefits of vaccination may not be effective.
"For my mother, her love and affection and care as a parent was used to push an agenda to create a false distress," he told the Senate Committee. His mother read posts on social media saying vaccines are dangerous, and that was enough to persuade her against them.
His story is an example of how widespread and harmful the current discourse on vaccinations is—and more importantly—how traditional strategies to convince people about the merits of vaccination have largely failed.
As responsible members of society, all of us have implicitly signed on to what ethicists call the "Social Contract" -- we agree to abide by certain moral and political rules of behavior. This is what our societal values, norms, and often governments are based upon. However, with the unprecedented rise of social media, alternative facts, and fake news, it is evident that our understanding—and application—of the social contract must also evolve.
Nowhere is this breakdown of societal norms more visible than in the failure to contain the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles. What started off as unexplained episodes in New York City last October, mostly in communities that are under-vaccinated, has exploded into a national epidemic: 880 cases of measles across 24 states in 2019, according to the CDC (as of May 17, 2019). In fact, the Unites States is only eight months away from losing its "measles free" status, joining Venezuela as the second country out of North and South America with that status.
The U.S. is not the only country facing this growing problem. Such constant and perilous reemergence of measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases in various parts of the world raises doubts about the efficacy of current vaccination policies. In addition to the loss of valuable life, these outbreaks lead to loss of millions of dollars in unnecessary expenditure of scarce healthcare resources. While we may be living through an age of information, we are also navigating an era whose hallmark is a massive onslaught on truth.
There is ample evidence on how these outbreaks start: low-vaccination rates. At the same time, there is evidence that 'educating' people with facts about the benefits of vaccination may not be effective. Indeed, human reasoning has a limit, and facts alone rarely change a person's opinion. In a fascinating report by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, a small experiment revealed how "behavioral nudges" could inform policy decisions around vaccination.
In the reported experiment, the vaccination rate for employees of a company increased by 1.5 percent when they were prompted to name the date when they planned to get their flu shot. In the same experiment, when employees were prompted to name both a date and a time for their planned flu shot, vaccination rate increased by 4 percent.
A randomized trial revealed the subtle power of "announcements" – direct, brief, assertive statements by physicians that assumed parents were ready to vaccinate their children.
This experiment is a part of an emerging field of behavioral economics—a scientific undertaking that uses insights from psychology to understand human decision-making. The field was born from a humbling realization that humans probably do not possess an unlimited capacity for processing information. Work in this field could inform how we can formulate vaccination policy that is effective, conserves healthcare resources, and is applicable to current societal norms.
Take, for instance, the case of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) that can cause several types of cancers in both men and women. Research into the quality of physician communication has repeatedly revealed how lukewarm recommendations for HPV vaccination by primary care physicians likely contributes to under-immunization of eligible adolescents and can cause confusion for parents.
A randomized trial revealed the subtle power of "announcements" – direct, brief, assertive statements by physicians that assumed parents were ready to vaccinate their children. These announcements increased vaccination rates by 5.4 percent. Lengthy, open-ended dialogues demonstrated no benefit in vaccination rates. It seems that uncertainty from the physician translates to unwillingness from a parent.
Choice architecture is another compelling concept. The premise is simple: We hardly make any of our decisions in vacuum; the environment in which these decisions are made has an influence. If health systems were designed with these insights in mind, people would be more likely to make better choices—without being forced.
This theory, proposed by Richard Thaler, who won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics, was put to the test by physicians at the University of Pennsylvania. In their study, flu vaccination rates at primary care practices increased by 9.5 percent all because the staff implemented "active choice intervention" in their electronic health records—a prompt that nudged doctors and nurses to ask patients if they'd gotten the vaccine yet. This study illustrated how an intervention as simple as a reminder can save lives.
To be sure, some bioethicists do worry about implementing these policies. Are behavioral nudges akin to increased scrutiny or a burden for the disadvantaged? For example, would incentives to quit smoking unfairly target the poor, who are more likely to receive criticism for bad choices?
The measles outbreak is a sober reminder of how devastating it can be when the social contract breaks down.
While this is a valid concern, behavioral economics offers one of the only ethical solutions to increasing vaccination rates by addressing the most critical—and often legal—challenge to universal vaccinations: mandates. Choice architecture and other interventions encourage and inform a choice, allowing an individual to retain his or her right to refuse unwanted treatment. This distinction is especially important, as evidence suggests that people who refuse vaccinations often do so as a result of cognitive biases – systematic errors in thinking resulting from emotional attachment or a lack of information.
For instance, people are prone to "confirmation bias," or a tendency to selectively believe in information that confirms their preexisting theories, rather than the available evidence. At the same time, people do not like mandates. In such situations, choice architecture provides a useful option: people are nudged to make the right choice via the design of health delivery systems, without needing policies that rely on force.
The measles outbreak is a sober reminder of how devastating it can be when the social contract breaks down and people fall prey to misinformation. But all is not lost. As we fight a larger societal battle against alternative facts, we now have another option in the trenches to subtly encourage people to make better choices.
Using insights from research in decision-making, we can all contribute meaningfully in controversial conversations with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and our representatives — and push for policies that protect those we care about. A little more than a hundred years ago, thousands of lives were routinely lost to preventive illnesses. We've come too far to let ignorance destroy us now.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 38th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis at age 58 in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms began with leg cramps in fall 2017 and foot drop in early 2018. A feeding tube was placed in 2019, as it became necessary early in his illness, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she added, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year. It is slightly more common in men than women. Most people are diagnosed between the ages of 55 and 75.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” Bedlack said. He added that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
"FDA went out on a limb in approving Relyvrio based on limited results from a small trial while a larger study remains in progress," said Florian P. Thomas, co-director of the ALS Center at Hackensack University Medical Center and the Meridian School of Medicine. "While it is definitely promising, clearly, the last word on this drug has not been spoken."
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he noted, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been conditionally approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby