[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.]
Every year, one in seven people in America comes down with a foodborne illness, typically caused by a bacterial pathogen, including E.Coli, listeria, salmonella, or campylobacter. That adds up to 48 million people, of which 120,000 are hospitalized and 3000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And the variety of foods that can be contaminated with bacterial pathogens is growing too. In the 20th century, E.Coli and listeria lurked primarily within meat. Now they find their way into lettuce, spinach, and other leafy greens, causing periodic consumer scares and product recalls. Onions are the most recent suspected culprit of a nationwide salmonella outbreak.
Some of these incidents are almost inevitable because of how Mother Nature works, explains Divya Jaroni, associate professor of animal and food sciences at Oklahoma State University. These common foodborne pathogens come from the cattle's intestines when the animals shed them in their manure—and then they get washed into rivers and lakes, especially in heavy rains. When this water is later used to irrigate produce farms, the bugs end up on salad greens. Plus, many small farms do both—herd cattle and grow produce.
"Unfortunately for us, these pathogens are part of the microflora of the cows' intestinal tract," Jaroni says. "Some farmers may have an acre or two of cattle pastures, and an acre of a produce farm nearby, so it's easy for this water to contaminate the crops."
Food producers and packagers fight bacteria by potent chemicals, with chlorine being the go-to disinfectant. Cattle carcasses, for example, are typically washed by chlorine solutions as the animals' intestines are removed. Leafy greens are bathed in water with added chlorine solutions. However, because the same "bath" can be used for multiple veggie batches and chlorine evaporates over time, the later rounds may not kill all of the bacteria, sparing some. The natural and organic producers avoid chlorine, substituting it with lactic acid, a more holistic sanitizer, but even with all these efforts, some pathogens survive, sickening consumers and causing food recalls. As we farm more animals and grow more produce, while also striving to use fewer chemicals and more organic growing methods, it will be harder to control bacteria's spread.
"It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives. But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end."
Luckily, bacteria have their own killers. Called bacteriophages, or phages for short, they are viruses that prey on bacteria only. Under the electron microscope, they look like fantasy spaceships, with oblong bodies, spider-like legs and long tails. Much smaller than a bacterium, phages pierce the microbes' cells with their tails, sneak in and begin multiplying inside, eventually bursting the microbes open—and then proceed to infect more of them. The best part is that these phages are harmless to humans. Moreover, recent research finds that millions of phages dwell on us and in us—in our nose, throat, skin and gut, protecting us from bacterial infections as part of our healthy microbiome. A recent study suggested that we absorb about 30 billion phages into our bodies on a daily basis. Now, ingeniously, they are starting to be deployed as anti-microbial agents in the food industry.
A Maryland-based phage research company called Intralytix is doing just that. Founded by Alexander Sulakvelidze, a microbiologist and epidemiologist who came to the United States from Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, Intralytix makes and sells five different FDA-approved phage cocktails that work against some of the most notorious food pathogens: ListShield for Listeria, SalmoFresh for Salmonella, ShigaShield for Shigella, another foodborne bug, and EcoShield for E.coli, including the infamous strain that caused the Jack in the Box outbreak in 1993 that killed four children and sickened 732 people across four states. Earlier this month, the FDA granted its approval to yet another Intralytix phage for managing Campylobacter contamination, named CampyShield. "We call it safety by nature," Sulakvelidze says.
Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder."
Photo credit: Living Radiant Photography
Phage preparations are relatively straightforward to make. In nature, phages thrive in any body of water where bacteria live too, including rivers, lakes and bays. "I can dip a bucket into the Chesapeake Bay, and it will be full of all kinds of phages," Sulakvelidze says. "Sewage is another great place to look for specific phages of interest, because it's teeming with all sorts of bacteria—and therefore the viruses that prey on them." In lab settings, Intralytix grows phages inside massive 1500-liter fermenters, feeding them bacterial "fodder." Once phages multiply enough, they are harvested, dispensed into containers and shipped to food producers who have adopted this disinfecting practice into their preparation process. Typically, it's done by computer-controlled sprayer systems that disperse mist-like phage preparations onto the food.
Unlike chemicals like chlorine or antibiotics, which kill a wide spectrum of bacteria, phages are more specialized, each feeding on specific microbial species. A phage that targets salmonella will not prey on listeria and vice versa. So food producers may sometimes use a combo of different phage preparations. Intralytix is continuously researching and testing new phages. With a contract from the National Institutes of Health, Intralytix is expanding its automated high-throughput robot that tests which phages work best against which bacteria, speeding up the development of the new phage cocktails.
Phages have other "talents." In her recent study, Jaroni found that phages have the ability to destroy bacterial biofilms—colonies of microorganisms that tend to grow on surfaces of the food processing equipment, surrounding themselves with protective coating that even very harsh chemicals can't crack. "Phages are very clever," Jaroni says. "They produce enzymes that target the biofilms, and once they break through, they can reach the bacteria."
Convincing the FDA that phages were safe to use on food products was no easy feat, Sulakvelidze says. In his home country of Georgia, phages have been used as antimicrobial remedies for over a century, but the FDA was leery of using viruses as food safety agents. "It took us a long time to convince the FDA phages were safe and efficient alternatives," Sulakvelidze says. "But we had worked with them to gather all the data they needed, and the FDA was very supportive in the end." The agency had granted Intralytix its first approval in 2006, and over the past 10 years, the company's sales increased by over 15-fold. "We currently sell to about 40 companies and are in discussions with several other large food producers," Sulakvelidze says. One indicator that the industry now understands and appreciates the science of phages was that his company was ranked as Top Food Safety Provider in 2021 by Food and Beverage Technology Review, he adds. Notably, phage sprays are kosher, halal and organic-certified.
Now Intralytix is going a step further, investigating phages' probiotic and therapeutic abilities. Because phages are highly specialized in the bacteria they target, they can be used to treat infections caused by specific pathogens while leaving the beneficial species of our microbiome intact. In an ongoing clinical trial with Mount Sinai, Intralytix is now investigating a potential phage treatment against a certain type of E. coli for patients with Crohn's disease, and is about to start another clinical trial for treating bacterial dysentery "Now that we have proved that phages are safe and effective against foodborne bacteria, we are going to demonstrate their potential in therapeutic applications."
Intralytix's phage cocktails are approved for consumers also, but currently the company sells to food producers only. "We'd like to sell to consumers also and we can do any time, but we just haven't gotten there yet," Sulakvelidze explains. Selling retail requires different packaging like easy-to-use spray bottles and different marketing that would inform people about phages' antimicrobial qualities. But ultimately, giving people the ability to remove pathogens from their food with probiotic phage sprays is the goal, Sulakvelidze says. "We would like to make it available to consumers."
In 2014, the city of Flint, Michigan switched the residents' water supply to the Flint river, citing cheaper costs. However, due to improper filtering, lead contaminated this water, and according to the Associated Press, many of the city's residents soon reported health issues like hair loss and rashes. In 2015, a report found that children there had high levels of lead in their blood. The National Resource Defense Council recently discovered there could still be as many as twelve million lead pipes carrying water to homes across the U.S.
What if Flint residents and others in afflicted areas could simply flick water onto their phone screens and an app would tell them if they were about to drink contaminated water? This is what researchers at the University of Cambridge are working on to prevent catastrophes like what occurred in Flint, and to prepare for an uncertain future of scarcer resources.
Underneath the tough glass of our phone screen lies a transparent layer of electrodes. Because our bodies hold an electric charge, when our finger touches the screen, it disrupts the electric field created among the electrodes. This is how the screen can sense where a touch occurs. Cambridge scientists used this same idea to explore whether the screen could detect charges in water, too. Metals like arsenic and lead can appear in water in the form of ions, which are charged particles. When the ionic solution is placed on the screen's surface, the electrodes sense that charge like how they sense our finger.
Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose.
The experiment measured charges in various electrolyte solutions on a touchscreen. The researchers found that a thin polymer layer between the electrodes and the sample solution helped pick up the charges.
"How can we get really close to the touch electrodes, and be better than a phone screen?" Horstmann, the lead scientist on the study, asked himself while designing the protective coating. "We found that when we put electrolytes directly on the electrodes, they were too close, even short-circuiting," he said. When they placed the polymer layer on top the electrodes, however, this short-circuiting did not occur. Horstmann speaks of the polymer layer as one of the key findings of the paper, as it allowed for optimum conductivity. The coating they designed was much thinner than what you'd see with a typical smartphone touchscreen, but because it's already so similar, he feels optimistic about the technology's practical applications in the real world.
While the Cambridge scientists were using touchscreens to measure water contamination, Dr. Baojun Wang, a synthetic biologist at the University of Edinburgh, along with his team, created a way to measure arsenic contamination in Bangladesh groundwater samples using what is called a cell-based biosensor. These biosensors use cornerstones of cellular activity like transcription and promoter sequences to detect the presence of metal ions in water. A promoter can be thought of as a "flag" that tells certain molecules where to begin copying genetic code. By hijacking this aspect of the cell's machinery and increasing the cell's sensing and signal processing ability, they were able to amplify the signal to detect tiny amounts of arsenic in the groundwater samples. All this was conducted in a 384-well plate, each well smaller than a pencil eraser.
They placed arsenic sensors with different sensitivities across part of the plate so it resembled a volume bar of increasing levels of arsenic, similar to diagnostics on a Fitbit or glucose monitor. The whole device is about the size of an iPhone, and can be scaled down to a much smaller size.
Dr. Wang says cell-based biosensors are bringing sensing technology closer to field applications, because their machinery uses inherent cellular activity. This makes them ideal for low-resource communities, and he expects his device to be affordable, portable, and easily stored for widespread use in households.
"It hasn't worked on actual phones yet, but I don't see any reason why it can't be an app," says Horstmann of their technology. Imagine a new generation of smartphones with a designated area of the screen responsible for detecting contamination—this is one of the possible futures the researchers propose. But industry collaborations will be crucial to making their advancements practical. The scientists anticipate that without collaborative efforts from the business sector, the public might have to wait ten years until this becomes something all our smartphones are capable of—but with the right partners, "it could go really quickly," says Dr. Elizabeth Hall, one of the authors on the touchscreen water contamination study.
"That's where the science ends and the business begins," Dr. Hall says. "There is a lot of interest coming through as a result of this paper. I think the people who make the investments and decisions are seeing that there might be something useful here."
As for Flint, according to The Detroit News, the city has entered the final stages in removing lead pipe infrastructure. It's difficult to imagine how many residents might fare better today if they'd had the technology that scientists are now creating.
Of all its tragedy, COVID-19 has increased demand for at-home testing methods, which has carried over to non-COVID-19-related devices. Various testing efforts are now in the public eye.
"I like that the public is watching these directions," says Horstmann. "I think there's a long way to go still, but it's exciting."