This free, virtual event will address public concerns about the coronavirus vaccines' speed and safety, and their pending rollout.

Alexander Limbach/Adobe



Monday, December 7th, 2020 12:00pm - 12:45pm PST

This virtual fireside chat will provide Dr. Nancy Messonnier, Director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, an opportunity to speak candidly to the public about the scientific integrity of the CDC, to address concerns regarding the speed and safety of coronavirus vaccines, and to discuss the government's work to distribute them quickly and equitably. She will appear in conversation with Nsikan Akpan, science editor at National Geographic. A public Q&A will follow the fireside chat.

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Kira Peikoff
Kira Peikoff is a journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Nautilus, Popular Mechanics, The New York Academy of Sciences, and other outlets. She is also the author of four suspense novels that explore controversial issues arising from scientific innovation: Living Proof, No Time to Die, Die Again Tomorrow, and Mother Knows Best. Peikoff holds a B.A. in Journalism from New York University and an M.S. in Bioethics from Columbia University. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son.

The vaccine from Pfizer will need to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius for worldwide distribution.


Ssendi Bosco has long known to fear the rainy season. As deputy health officer of Mubende District, a region in Central Uganda, she is only too aware of the threat that heavy storms can pose to her area's fragile healthcare facilities.

In early October, persistent rain overwhelmed the power generator that supplies electricity to most of the region, causing a blackout for three weeks. The result was that most of Mubende's vaccine supplies against diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and polio went to waste. "The vaccines need to be constantly refrigerated, so the generator failing means that most of them are now unusable," she says.

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David Cox
David Cox is a science and health writer based in the UK. He has a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Cambridge and has written for newspapers and broadcasters worldwide including BBC News, New York Times, and The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter @DrDavidACox.
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A doctor cradles a newborn who is sick with measles.

(© andriano_cz/Adobe)

Ethan Lindenberger, the Ohio teenager who sought out vaccinations after he was denied them as a child, recently testified before Congress about why his parents became anti-vaxxers. The trouble, he believes, stems from the pervasiveness of misinformation online.

There is evidence that 'educating' people with facts about the benefits of vaccination may not be effective.

"For my mother, her love and affection and care as a parent was used to push an agenda to create a false distress," he told the Senate Committee. His mother read posts on social media saying vaccines are dangerous, and that was enough to persuade her against them.

His story is an example of how widespread and harmful the current discourse on vaccinations is—and more importantly—how traditional strategies to convince people about the merits of vaccination have largely failed.

As responsible members of society, all of us have implicitly signed on to what ethicists call the "Social Contract" -- we agree to abide by certain moral and political rules of behavior. This is what our societal values, norms, and often governments are based upon. However, with the unprecedented rise of social media, alternative facts, and fake news, it is evident that our understanding—and application—of the social contract must also evolve.

Nowhere is this breakdown of societal norms more visible than in the failure to contain the spread of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles. What started off as unexplained episodes in New York City last October, mostly in communities that are under-vaccinated, has exploded into a national epidemic: 880 cases of measles across 24 states in 2019, according to the CDC (as of May 17, 2019). In fact, the Unites States is only eight months away from losing its "measles free" status, joining Venezuela as the second country out of North and South America with that status.

The U.S. is not the only country facing this growing problem. Such constant and perilous reemergence of measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases in various parts of the world raises doubts about the efficacy of current vaccination policies. In addition to the loss of valuable life, these outbreaks lead to loss of millions of dollars in unnecessary expenditure of scarce healthcare resources. While we may be living through an age of information, we are also navigating an era whose hallmark is a massive onslaught on truth.

There is ample evidence on how these outbreaks start: low-vaccination rates. At the same time, there is evidence that 'educating' people with facts about the benefits of vaccination may not be effective. Indeed, human reasoning has a limit, and facts alone rarely change a person's opinion. In a fascinating report by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, a small experiment revealed how "behavioral nudges" could inform policy decisions around vaccination.

In the reported experiment, the vaccination rate for employees of a company increased by 1.5 percent when they were prompted to name the date when they planned to get their flu shot. In the same experiment, when employees were prompted to name both a date and a time for their planned flu shot, vaccination rate increased by 4 percent.

A randomized trial revealed the subtle power of "announcements" – direct, brief, assertive statements by physicians that assumed parents were ready to vaccinate their children.

This experiment is a part of an emerging field of behavioral economics—a scientific undertaking that uses insights from psychology to understand human decision-making. The field was born from a humbling realization that humans probably do not possess an unlimited capacity for processing information. Work in this field could inform how we can formulate vaccination policy that is effective, conserves healthcare resources, and is applicable to current societal norms.

Take, for instance, the case of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) that can cause several types of cancers in both men and women. Research into the quality of physician communication has repeatedly revealed how lukewarm recommendations for HPV vaccination by primary care physicians likely contributes to under-immunization of eligible adolescents and can cause confusion for parents.

A randomized trial revealed the subtle power of "announcements" – direct, brief, assertive statements by physicians that assumed parents were ready to vaccinate their children. These announcements increased vaccination rates by 5.4 percent. Lengthy, open-ended dialogues demonstrated no benefit in vaccination rates. It seems that uncertainty from the physician translates to unwillingness from a parent.

Choice architecture is another compelling concept. The premise is simple: We hardly make any of our decisions in vacuum; the environment in which these decisions are made has an influence. If health systems were designed with these insights in mind, people would be more likely to make better choices—without being forced.

This theory, proposed by Richard Thaler, who won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics, was put to the test by physicians at the University of Pennsylvania. In their study, flu vaccination rates at primary care practices increased by 9.5 percent all because the staff implemented "active choice intervention" in their electronic health records—a prompt that nudged doctors and nurses to ask patients if they'd gotten the vaccine yet. This study illustrated how an intervention as simple as a reminder can save lives.

To be sure, some bioethicists do worry about implementing these policies. Are behavioral nudges akin to increased scrutiny or a burden for the disadvantaged? For example, would incentives to quit smoking unfairly target the poor, who are more likely to receive criticism for bad choices?

The measles outbreak is a sober reminder of how devastating it can be when the social contract breaks down.

While this is a valid concern, behavioral economics offers one of the only ethical solutions to increasing vaccination rates by addressing the most critical—and often legal—challenge to universal vaccinations: mandates. Choice architecture and other interventions encourage and inform a choice, allowing an individual to retain his or her right to refuse unwanted treatment. This distinction is especially important, as evidence suggests that people who refuse vaccinations often do so as a result of cognitive biases – systematic errors in thinking resulting from emotional attachment or a lack of information.

For instance, people are prone to "confirmation bias," or a tendency to selectively believe in information that confirms their preexisting theories, rather than the available evidence. At the same time, people do not like mandates. In such situations, choice architecture provides a useful option: people are nudged to make the right choice via the design of health delivery systems, without needing policies that rely on force.

The measles outbreak is a sober reminder of how devastating it can be when the social contract breaks down and people fall prey to misinformation. But all is not lost. As we fight a larger societal battle against alternative facts, we now have another option in the trenches to subtly encourage people to make better choices.

Using insights from research in decision-making, we can all contribute meaningfully in controversial conversations with family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and our representatives — and push for policies that protect those we care about. A little more than a hundred years ago, thousands of lives were routinely lost to preventive illnesses. We've come too far to let ignorance destroy us now.

Junaid Nabi
Junaid Nabi, MD, MPH, is a physician, public health researcher, and a medical journalist. He currently manages several research projects at Brigham Health that include investigating provider- and hospital-level factors associated with racial and ethnic disparities in surgical oncology; evaluating the fiscal impact of consolidating care of complex patients; and, examining systematic factors that lead to opioid over-prescribing patterns after surgery. He has also undertaken research that examined the effect of health disparities that arise from social and political disenfranchisement and the relationship between trauma care and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Previously, he was a Fellow in Bioethics at Harvard Medical School Center for Bioethics where he studied bioethical issues in global healthcare delivery; role of bioethicists in Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and other evolving technologies; and, emotional intelligence in bioethical analysis. He is a New Voices Fellow at The Aspen Institute, Washington, D.C., and a Fellow at Harvard Graduate School Leadership Institute, Boston.

The author's son Chris, at two years old in the summer of 1980, before his 4th DPT shot.

(Courtesy Fisher)

[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.

(Courtesy Fisher)

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.]

Barbara Loe Fisher
Author and human rights activist Barbara Loe Fisher is co-founder and president of the non-profit National Vaccine Information Center established in 1982 to prevent vaccine injuries and deaths through public education. She is co-author of the 1985 book DPT: A Shot in the Dark, author of A Guide to Reforming Vaccine Policy and Law, founder and executive editor of the online journal newspaper, The Vaccine Reaction, and a video blog commentator on She helped secure safety provisions in the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act and has testified in Congress and state legislatures. She served on the National Vaccine Advisory Committee; Institute of Medicine Vaccine Safety Forum; the FDA Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee and Vaccine Policy Analysis Collaborative. She has discussed vaccine science, policy and law on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, NPR and in USA Today, Washington Post, New York Times and many public forums.

A pediatrician gives a one-year-old child a vaccine.

(© sonar512/Fotolia)

[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.]

Daniel Salmon
Daniel Salmon is the Director of Johns Hopkins Institute for Vaccine Safety. Before joining the Institute, Salmon was the Director of Vaccine Safety in the National Vaccine Program Office at the US Department of Health and Human Services. As director, he coordinated, evaluated and provided leadership for federal vaccine safety programs. During the 2009-10 H1N1 influenza pandemic, he oversaw the federal vaccine safety monitoring program—the most comprehensive vaccine safety monitoring effort in US history. Dr. Salmon’s primary research and practice interest is optimizing the prevention of childhood infectious diseases through the use of vaccines. He is broadly trained in vaccinology, with an emphasis in epidemiology, behavioral epidemiology, and health policy. Dr. Salmon’s focus has been on determining the individual and community risks of vaccine refusal, understanding factors that impact vaccine acceptance, evaluating and improving state laws providing exemptions to school immunization requirements, developing systems and science in vaccine safety, and effective vaccine risk communication.