Every weekend since January, pediatrician Cora Collette Breuner has volunteered to give the COVID-19 vaccine to individuals from age 12 to 96 in an underserved community in Washington state.
Even though the COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe and effective, there's still quite a bit of hesitancy among parents to vaccinate their teenage children, says Breuner, an adolescent medicine specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital and a past chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Committee on Adolescence. "They have questions and they have questions," she says.
Breuner patiently answers them all. Even then, parents—who have the final say in whether their child gets the vaccine—may be reluctant to sign off on it.
In 41 states, parents must consent for minors under age 18 to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. One state—Nebraska—requires parental consent for individuals under age 19, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. Healthcare workers can't legally give teens COVID-19 vaccines otherwise. In a May report, the nonprofit healthcare organization highlights that from a legal perspective, "the landscape may be shifting slightly as more jurisdictions seek to encourage vaccination of young people."
Meanwhile, as the Delta variant creates a new surge in cases, some ethicists and pediatricians argue that state laws should be amended or loosened to allow minors to consent to COVID-19 vaccination on their own, without the need for parental permission.
"COVID-19 has killed millions of people around the world and disrupted the global economy," says pediatrician John Lantos. "It's a global catastrophe that requires special rules."
There are compelling arguments in favor of letting minors consent on their own, says Robyn Shapiro, a health care lawyer and a bioethicist in the Milwaukee area. "By that, I mean they're either old enough or they're evaluated in such a way that they have sufficient understanding of what they're agreeing to."
Shapiro and other ethicists argue that teens are perfectly capable of giving "informed consent"—a key principle in ethics that means fully understanding the benefits and risks of a medical intervention. To give informed consent, a person must be able to process that information in line with their own values. Only then can they make an autonomous choice and sign a consent form, Shapiro says.
Most states already have laws permitting minors to consent to testing and treatments related to sexually transmitted diseases, birth control, behavioral health, and substance abuse. It wouldn't be that much of a stretch to add COVID-19 vaccination to the list, Shapiro says. New Jersey and New York have introduced bills to let teens as young as 14 to consent to getting the COVID-19 vaccine and Minnesota has proposed a bill to allow children as young as 12 to give consent.
With any medical test or intervention, doctors often wrestle with how to best involve teens in conversations about their own health care, says John Lantos, a pediatrician and director of the Bioethics Center at Children's Mercy Kansas City.
"Most bioethicists would say that [teens] should be included to the degree that they have decision-making capacity," he says. "In most cases, that means including them in discussions with their parents in trying to achieve consensus about what the best choice may be."
COVID-19 vaccination also presents a unique circumstance, Lantos notes. It raises the question: Should teens have greater decisional authority because it's a public health emergency? In his opinion, the answer is yes. "COVID-19 has killed millions of people around the world and disrupted the global economy," says pediatrician Lantos. "It's a global catastrophe that requires special rules."
In North Carolina, state legislators are moving to do the opposite. State law currently allows those under 18 to make vaccination decisions on their own, but on Aug. 5, North Carolina's General Assembly approved a Republican-sponsored bill requiring parental consent for 12- to 17-year-olds to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Kyle Brothers, a pediatrician in Louisville, Kentucky, says it's "ethically justifiable" for states to permit adolescents, especially those on the verge of adulthood, to consent to COVID-19 vaccination and other straightforward medical care.
In many cases, 16- and 17-year-old adolescents are capable of making well-informed decisions, says Brothers, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Section on Bioethics. "The problem is, the law tends not to have that level of nuance," he adds. "We know in the real world that maturing and developing the ability to make decisions is a continuous process, but the law sets a bright line at age 18."
Lacking parental consent, some defiant teens are researching avenues to get vaccinated without their mom's or dad's knowledge. They may have turned to VaxTeen.org, a site operated by a Los Angeles teenager that provides information on consent laws by state.
If parents are wavering on the decision to give consent, Breuner recommends that they speak with a trusted healthcare provider about their specific concerns. These kinds of dialogues often can clarify lingering worries and may help drive up consent rates for teen vaccination.
Vaccine-hesitant parents should hear out their teens who wish to be vaccinated. Teenagers have their own opinions and belief systems, and parents should respect their child's choice to be vaccinated if they wish, considering the minimal risk of harm and the significant benefit to society as a whole.
George J. Annas, professor and director at the Center for Health Law, Ethics & Human Rights at Boston University, says parents have a legal obligation to provide their children with necessary medical treatment, or they could be found guilty of child neglect. The circumstances vary, but in the face of unrelenting COVID-19, he says parents have an ethical duty to consent to teens' vaccination because "the disease is rampant and children are dying."
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. 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.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”