[Editor's Note: This opinion essay is in response to our current Big Question, which we posed to experts with different viewpoints: "Where should society draw the line between requiring vaccinations for children and allowing parental freedom of choice?"]
Our children are the future. The survival of humanity is advanced by the biological imperative that mothers and fathers want and need to protect their children and other children from being harmed for any reason.
Science is not perfect, doctors are not infallible, and medical interventions come with risks.
In the 21st century, consensus science considers vaccination to be one of the greatest inventions in the history of medicine and the greatest achievement of public health programs. The national vaccination rate for U.S. kindergarten children is 94 percent and most children today receive 69 doses of 16 federally recommended vaccines. However, public health is not simply measured by high vaccination rates and absence of infectious disease, which is evidenced by the chronic inflammatory disease and disability epidemic threatening to bankrupt the U.S. health care system.
Science is not perfect, doctors are not infallible, and medical interventions come with risks, which is why parents have the power to exercise informed consent to medical risk taking on behalf of their minor children.
As a young mother, I learned that vaccine risks are 100 percent for some children because, while we are all born equal under the law, we are not born all the same. Each one of us enters this world with different genes, a unique microbiome and epigenetic influences that affect how we respond to the environments in which we live. We do not all respond the same way to infectious diseases or to pharmaceutical products like vaccines.
Few parents were aware of vaccine side effects in 1980, when my bright, healthy two-and-a-half year-old son, Chris, suffered a convulsion, collapse, and state of unconsciousness (encephalopathy) within hours of his fourth DPT shot, and then regressed physically, mentally and emotionally and became a totally different child. Chris was eventually diagnosed with multiple learning disabilities and confined to a special education classroom throughout his public school education, but he and I both know his vaccine reaction could have been much worse. Today, Chris is an independent adult but many survivors of brain injury are not.
Barbara Loe Fisher and her son, Chris, in December 1981 after his fourth DPT shot.
The public conversation about several hundred cases of measles reported in the U.S. this year is focused on whether every parent has a social obligation to vaccinate every child to maintain "community immunity," but vaccine failures are rarely discussed. Emerging science reveals that there are differences in naturally and vaccine acquired immunity, and both vaccinated and unvaccinated children and adults transmit infections, sometimes with few or no symptoms.
Nearly 40 percent of cases reported in the 2015 U.S. measles outbreak occurred in recently vaccinated individuals who developed vaccine reactions that appeared indistinguishable from measles. Outbreaks of pertussis (whooping cough) in highly vaccinated child populations have been traced to waning immunity and evolution of the B. pertussis microbe to evade the vaccines. Influenza vaccine effectiveness was less than 50 percent in 11 of the past 15 flu seasons.
Vaccine policymakers recognize that children with severe combined immune deficiency or those undergoing chemotherapy or organ transplants are at increased risk for complications of infectious diseases and vaccines. However, there is no recognition of the risks to healthy infants and children with unidentified susceptibility to vaccine reactions, including children whose health suddenly deteriorates without explanation after vaccination. Medical care is being denied to children and adults in the U.S. if even one government recommended vaccination is declined, regardless of health or vaccine reaction history.
When parents question the risks and failures of a commercial pharmaceutical product being mandated for every child, the answer is not more force but better science and respect for the informed consent ethic.
The social contract we have with each other when we live in communities, whether we belong to the majority or a minority, is to care about and protect every individual living in the community. One-size-fits-all vaccine policies and laws, which fail to respect biodiversity and force everyone to be treated the same, place an unequal risk burden on a minority of unidentified individuals unable to survive vaccination without being harmed.
A law that requires certain minorities to bear a greater risk of injury or sacrifice their lives in service to the majority is not just or moral.
Between 1991 and 2013, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) published reports documenting that vaccines can cause brain inflammation and other serious reactions, injuries and death. A 2012 IOM report acknowledged that there are genetic, biological, and environmental risk factors that make some individuals more susceptible to adverse responses to vaccines but often doctors cannot identify who they are because of gaps in vaccine science. Congress acknowledged this fact a quarter century earlier in the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which created a federal vaccine injury compensation program alternative to a lawsuit that has awarded more than $4 billion to vaccine-injured children and adults.
We give up the human right to autonomy and informed consent at our peril, no matter where or in what century we live.
Vaccine manufacturers and administrators have liability protection, yet today almost no health condition qualifies for a medical vaccine exemption under government guidelines. Now, there is a global call by consensus science advocates for elimination of all personal belief vaccine exemptions and censorship of books and public conversations that criticize vaccine safety or government vaccine policy. Some are calling for quarantine of all who refuse vaccinations and criminal prosecution, fines and imprisonment of parents with unvaccinated children, as well as punishment of doctors who depart from government policy.
There is no civil liberty more fundamentally a natural, inalienable right than exercising freedom of thought and conscience when deciding when and for what reason we are willing to risk our life or our child's life. That is why voluntary, informed consent to medical risk-taking has been defined as a human right governing the ethical practice of modern medicine.
In his first Presidential inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson warned:
"All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority posses their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression."
The seminal 1905 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Jacobson v. Massachusetts, affirmed the constitutional authority of states to enact mandatory smallpox vaccination laws. However, the justices made it clear that implementation of a vaccination law should not become "cruel and inhuman to the last degree." They warned, "All laws, this court has said, should receive a sensible construction. General terms should be so limited in their application as not to lead to injustice, oppression, or an absurd consequence. It will always, therefore, be presumed that the legislature intended exceptions to its language, which would avoid results of this character."
Mothers and fathers, who know and love their children better than anyone else, depend upon sound science and compassionate public health policies to help them protect their own and other children from harm. If individuals susceptible to vaccine injury cannot be reliably identified, the accuracy of vaccine benefit and risk calculations must be reexamined. Yet, consensus science and medicine around vaccination discourages research into the biological mechanisms of vaccine injury and death and identification of individual risk factors to better inform public health policy.
A critic of consensus science, physician and author Michael Crichton said, "Let's be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Consensus is the business of politics. Period."
Condoning elimination of civil liberties, including freedom of speech and the right to dissent guaranteed under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, to enforce vaccination creates a slippery slope. Coercion, punishment and censorship will destroy, not instill, public trust in the integrity of medical practice and public health laws.
There are more than a dozen new vaccines being fast tracked to market by industry and governments. Who in society should be given the power to force all children to use every one of them without parental consent regardless of how small or great the risk?
We give up the human right to autonomy and informed consent at our peril, no matter where or in what century we live. Just and compassionate public health laws that protect parental and human rights will include flexible medical, religious and conscientious belief vaccine exemptions to affirm the informed consent ethic and prevent discrimination against vulnerable minorities.
[Editor's Note: Read the opposite viewpoint here.]
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Becky Cummings had multiple reasons to get vaccinated against COVID-19 while tending to her firstborn, Clark, who arrived in September 2020 at 27 weeks.
The 29-year-old intensive care unit nurse in Greensboro, North Carolina, had witnessed the devastation day in and day out as the virus took its toll on the young and old. But when she was offered the vaccine, she hesitated, skeptical of its rapid emergency approval.
Exclusion of pregnant and lactating mothers from clinical trials fueled her concerns. Ultimately, though, she concluded the benefits of vaccination outweighed the risks of contracting the potentially deadly virus.
"Long story short," Cummings says, in December "I got vaccinated to protect myself, my family, my patients, and the general public."
At the time, Cummings remained on the fence about breastfeeding, citing a lack of evidence to support its safety after vaccination, so she pumped and stashed breast milk in the freezer. Her son is adjusting to life as a preemie, requiring mother's milk to be thickened with formula, but she's becoming comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding as more research suggests it's safe.
"If I could pop him on the boob," she says, "I would do it in a heartbeat."
Now, a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found "robust secretion" of specific antibodies in the breast milk of mothers who received a COVID-19 vaccine, indicating a potentially protective effect against infection in their infants.
The presence of antibodies in the breast milk, detectable as early as two weeks after vaccination, lasted for six weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
"We believe antibody secretion into breast milk will persist for much longer than six weeks, but we first wanted to prove any secretion at all after vaccination," says Ilan Youngster, the study's corresponding author and head of pediatric infectious diseases at Shamir Medical Center in Zerifin, Israel.
That's why the research team performed a preliminary analysis at six weeks. "We are still collecting samples from participants and hope to soon be able to comment about the duration of secretion."
As with other respiratory illnesses, such as influenza and pertussis, secretion of antibodies in breast milk confers protection from infection in infants. The researchers expect a similar immune response from the COVID-19 vaccine and are expecting the findings to spur an increase in vaccine acceptance among pregnant and lactating women.
A COVID-19 outbreak struck three families the research team followed in the study, resulting in at least one non-breastfed sibling developing symptomatic infection; however, none of the breastfed babies became ill. "This is obviously not empirical proof," Youngster acknowledges, "but still a nice anecdote."
Leaps.org inquired whether infants who derive antibodies only through breast milk are likely to have a lower immunity than infants whose mothers were vaccinated while they were in utero. In other words, is maternal transmission of antibodies stronger during pregnancy than during breastfeeding, or about the same?
"This is a different kind of transmission," Youngster explains. "When a woman is infected or vaccinated during pregnancy, some antibodies will be transferred through the placenta to the baby's bloodstream and be present for several months." But in the nursing mother, that protection occurs through local action. "We always recommend breastfeeding whenever possible, and, in this case, it might have added benefits."
A study published online in March found COVID-19 vaccination provided pregnant and lactating women with robust immune responses comparable to those experienced by their nonpregnant counterparts. The study, appearing in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, documented the presence of vaccine-generated antibodies in umbilical cord blood and breast milk after mothers had been vaccinated.
Natali Aziz, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Stanford University School of Medicine, notes that it's too early to draw firm conclusions about the reduction in COVID-19 infection rates among newborns of vaccinated mothers. Citing the two aforementioned research studies, she says it's biologically plausible that antibodies passed through the placenta and breast milk impart protective benefits. While thousands of pregnant and lactating women have been vaccinated against COVID-19, without incurring adverse outcomes, many are still wondering whether it's safe to breastfeed afterward.
It's important to bear in mind that pregnant women may develop more severe COVID-19 complications, which could lead to intubation or admittance to the intensive care unit. "We, in our practice, are supporting pregnant and breastfeeding patients to be vaccinated," says Aziz, who is also director of perinatal infectious diseases at Stanford Children's Health, which has been vaccinating new mothers and other hospitalized patients at discharge since late April.
Earlier in April, Huntington Hospital in Long Island, New York, began offering the COVID-19 vaccine to women after they gave birth. The hospital chose the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine for postpartum patients, so they wouldn't need to return for a second shot while acclimating to life with a newborn, says Mitchell Kramer, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology.
The hospital suspended the program when the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paused use of the J&J vaccine starting April 13, while investigating several reports of dangerous blood clots and low platelet counts among more than 7 million people in the United States who had received that vaccine.
In lifting the pause April 23, the agencies announced the vaccine's fact sheets will bear a warning of the heightened risk for a rare but serious blood clot disorder among women under age 50. As a result, Kramer says, "we will likely not be using the J&J vaccine for our postpartum population."
So, would it make sense to vaccinate infants when one for them eventually becomes available, not just their mothers? "In general, most of the time, infants do not have as good of an immune response to vaccines," says Jonathan Temte, associate dean for public health and community engagement at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.
"Many of our vaccines are held until children are six months of age. For example, the influenza vaccine starts at age six months, the measles vaccine typically starts one year of age, as do rubella and mumps. Immune response is typically not very good for viral illnesses in young infants under the age of six months."
So far, the FDA has granted emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children as young as 16 years old. The agency is considering data from Pfizer to lower that age limit to 12. Studies are also underway in children under age 12. Meanwhile, data from Moderna on 12-to 17-year-olds and from Pfizer on 12- to 15-year-olds have not been made public. (Pfizer announced at the end of March that its vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 in the latter age group, and FDA authorization for this population is expected soon.)
"There will be step-wise progression to younger children, with infants and toddlers being the last ones tested," says James Campbell, a pediatric infectious diseases physician and head of maternal and child clinical studies at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Vaccine Development.
"Once the data are analyzed for safety, tolerability, optimal dose and regimen, and immune responses," he adds, "they could be authorized and recommended and made available to American children." The data on younger children are not expected until the end of this year, with regulatory authorization possible in early 2022.
For now, Vonnie Cesar, a family nurse practitioner in Smyrna, Georgia, is aiming to persuade expectant and new mothers to get vaccinated. She has observed that patients in metro Atlanta seem more inclined than their rural counterparts.
To quell some of their skepticism and fears, Cesar, who also teaches nursing students, conceived a visual way to demonstrate the novel mechanism behind the COVID-19 vaccine technology. Holding a palm-size physical therapy ball outfitted with clear-colored push pins, she simulates the spiked protein of the coronavirus. Slime slathered at the gaps permeates areas around the spikes—a process similar to how our antibodies build immunity to the virus.
These conversations often lead hesitant patients to discuss vaccination with their husbands or partners. "The majority of people I'm speaking with," she says, "are coming to the conclusion that this is the right thing for me, this is the common good, and they want to make sure that they're here for their children."