[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.]
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