[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.]
In June, a team of surgeons at Duke University Hospital implanted the latest model of an artificial heart in a 39-year-old man with severe heart failure, a condition in which the heart doesn't pump properly. The man's mechanical heart, made by French company Carmat, is a new generation artificial heart and the first of its kind to be transplanted in the United States. It connects to a portable external power supply and is designed to keep the patient alive until a replacement organ becomes available.
Many patients die while waiting for a heart transplant, but artificial hearts can bridge the gap. Though not a permanent solution for heart failure, artificial hearts have saved countless lives since their first implantation in 1982.
What might surprise you is that the origin of the artificial heart dates back decades before, when an inventive television actor teamed up with a famous doctor to design and patent the first such device.
A man of many talents
Paul Winchell was an entertainer in the 1950s and 60s, rising to fame as a ventriloquist and guest-starring as an actor on programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show" and "Perry Mason." When children's animation boomed in the 1960s, Winchell made a name for himself as a voice actor on shows like "The Smurfs," "Winnie the Pooh," and "The Jetsons." He eventually became famous for originating the voices of Tigger from "Winnie the Pooh" and Gargamel from "The Smurfs," among many others.
But Winchell wasn't just an entertainer: He also had a quiet passion for science and medicine. Between television gigs, Winchell busied himself working as a medical hypnotist and acupuncturist, treating the same Hollywood stars he performed alongside. When he wasn't doing that, Winchell threw himself into engineering and design, building not only the ventriloquism dummies he used on his television appearances but a host of products he'd dreamed up himself. Winchell spent hours tinkering with his own inventions, such as a set of battery-powered gloves and something called a "flameless lighter." Over the course of his life, Winchell designed and patented more than 30 of these products – mostly novelties, but also serious medical devices, such as a portable blood plasma defroster.
|Ventriloquist Paul Winchell with Jerry Mahoney, his dummy, in 1951|
A meeting of the minds
In the early 1950s, Winchell appeared on a variety show called the "Arthur Murray Dance Party" and faced off in a dance competition with the legendary Ricardo Montalban (Winchell won). At a cast party for the show later that same night, Winchell met Dr. Henry Heimlich – the same doctor who would later become famous for inventing the Heimlich maneuver, who was married to Murray's daughter. The two hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared interest in medicine. Before long, Heimlich invited Winchell to come observe him in the operating room at the hospital where he worked. Winchell jumped at the opportunity, and not long after he became a frequent guest in Heimlich's surgical theatre, fascinated by the mechanics of the human body.
One day while Winchell was observing at the hospital, he witnessed a patient die on the operating table after undergoing open-heart surgery. He was suddenly struck with an idea: If there was some way doctors could keep blood pumping temporarily throughout the body during surgery, patients who underwent risky operations like open-heart surgery might have a better chance of survival. Winchell rushed to Heimlich with the idea – and Heimlich agreed to advise Winchell and look over any design drafts he came up with. So Winchell went to work.
As it turned out, building ventriloquism dummies wasn't that different from building an artificial heart, Winchell noted later in his autobiography – the shifting valves and chambers of the mechanical heart were similar to the moving eyes and opening mouths of his puppets. After each design, Winchell would go back to Heimlich and the two would confer, making adjustments along the way to.
By 1956, Winchell had perfected his design: The "heart" consisted of a bag that could be placed inside the human body, connected to a battery-powered motor outside of the body. The motor enabled the bag to pump blood throughout the body, similar to a real human heart. Winchell received a patent for the design in 1963.
At the time, Winchell never quite got the credit he deserved. Years later, researchers at the University of Utah, working on their own artificial heart, came across Winchell's patent and got in touch with Winchell to compare notes. Winchell ended up donating his patent to the team, which included Dr. Richard Jarvik. Jarvik expanded on Winchell's design and created the Jarvik-7 – the world's first artificial heart to be successfully implanted in a human being in 1982.
The Jarvik-7 has since been replaced with newer, more efficient models made up of different synthetic materials, allowing patients to live for longer stretches without the heart clogging or breaking down. With each new generation of hearts, heart failure patients have been able to live relatively normal lives for longer periods of time and with fewer complications than before – and it never would have been possible without the unsung genius of a puppeteer and his love of science.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."