[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?"]
Society has a right and at times an obligation to require children to be vaccinated. Vaccines are one of the most effective medical and public health interventions. They save lives and prevent suffering. The vast majority of parents in the United States fully vaccinate their children according to the recommended immunization schedule. These parents are making decisions so that the interests of their children and the interest of society are the same. There are no ethical tensions.
"Measles is only a plane ride away from American children."
A strong scientific basis supports the recommended immunization schedule. The benefits of recommended vaccines are much bigger than the risks. However, a very small proportion of parents are ideologically opposed to vaccines. A slightly larger minority of parents do not believe that all of the recommended vaccines are in their child's best interests.
Forgoing vaccinations creates risk to the child of contracting diseases. It also creates risk to communities and vulnerable groups of people who cannot be vaccinated because of their age or health status.
For example, many vaccines are not able to be given to newborns, such as the measles vaccine which is recommended at 12-15 months of age, leaving young children vulnerable. Many diseases are particularly dangerous for young children. There are also some children who can't be vaccinated, such as pediatric cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment. These children are at increased risk of serous complication or death.
Then there are people who are vaccinated but remain susceptible to disease because no vaccine is 100% effective. In the case of measles, two doses of vaccines protect 97% of people, leaving 3% still susceptible even after being fully vaccinated. All of these groups of people – too young, not eligible, and vaccinated but still susceptible – are dependent on almost everyone else to get vaccinated in order for them to be protected.
Sadly, even though measles has been largely controlled because most people get the very safe and very effective vaccine, we are now seeing dangerous new outbreaks because some parents are refusing vaccines for their children, especially in Europe. Children have died. Measles is only a plane ride away from American children.
There have been repeated measles outbreaks in the United States – such as the Disneyland outbreak and six outbreaks already this year - because of communities where too many parents refuse the vaccine and measles is brought over, often from Europe.
The public health benefits cannot be emphasized enough: Vaccines are not just about protecting your child. Vaccines protect other children and the entire community. Vaccine-preventable diseases (with the exception of tetanus) are spread from person to person. The decision of a parent to not vaccinate their child can endanger other children and vulnerable people.
As a vaccine safety researcher for 20 years, I believe that the community benefit of vaccination can provide justification to limit parental autonomy.
Given these tensions between parental autonomy and the protective value of vaccines, the fundamental question remains: Should society require all children to submit to vaccinations? As a vaccine safety researcher for 20 years, I believe that the community benefit of vaccination can provide justification to limit parental autonomy.
In the United States, we see this balancing act though state requirements for vaccinations to enter school and the varying availability of non-medical exemptions to these laws. Mandatory vaccination in the United States are all state laws. All states require children entering school to receive vaccines and permit medical exemptions. There are a lot of differences between states regarding which vaccines are required, target populations (daycare, school entry, middle school, college), and existence and types of non-medical (religious or philosophical) exemptions that are permitted.
Amid recent measles outbreaks, for instance, California eliminated all non-medical exemptions, making it one of three states that only permit medical exemptions. The existence and enforcement of these school laws reflect broad public support for vaccines to protect the community from disease outbreaks.
I worry about how many kids must suffer, and even die, from diseases like measles until enough is enough. Such tragedies have no place in the modern era. All parents want to do right by their children. All parents deserve autonomy when it comes to decision-making. But when their choices confer serious risks to others, the buck should stop. Our nation would be better off—both medically and ethically—if we did not turn our backs on our most vulnerable individuals.
[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