Friday, March 22, 2013

Anthrax Vaccine Tested on Kids?

You might have seen the headline today, "Test of anthrax vaccine in children gets tentative OK" or "Bioethicist: No chance of anthrax vaccine trials in kids" or even "Obama Bioethics Council OKs Anthrax Vaccine Testing on Kids." Let me try to cut through the bias on both sides of the aisle and let you know what is really going on. (And throw in some Catholic medical ethics while I'm at it because that's what I do.)

So, back in 2011, there was a study about how devastating it could be if anthrax was released in a major city. This study estimated that as many as 8 million people could get infected and a quarter of them would be children. The people who did the study strongly recommended that a vaccine be created and tested to use to protect children pending an ethics evaluation.

And the results of the ethics evaluation came out Tuesday. It said that once the possibility of harm has been brought down to no more than minimal risk, it might be okay to test on children. The President's Bioethics Commission put a very tentative seal of approval on this potential study.

What does that mean? Well, they won't be shooting an anthrax vaccine into little Johnny's arm anytime soon, if that's what you are worried about. It takes an average of 12 years to develop a new drug. Now, it might be quicker for this vaccine since there is already one in use. Currently, our men and women in uniform and those who work in at-risk professions like the scientists who work with it are required to get vaccinated. The adult vaccination doesn't seem to have any more side effects than your normal vaccine and it seems to be pretty effective

So, what are we up in arms about? We're talking about children. We're talking about protecting children from a terrorist attack. But we're also talking about testing on children. On the one hand, we want our kids safe from attacks, anthrax itself is likely worse than any vaccine (certainly any vaccine that is okay'd to test on humans) and the best way to know if something works is to test it on the population that it is for. On the other hand, we have a natural revulsion against using our kids as lab rats.

What do respected Catholic bioethicists say? Having been edjamacated in a Dominican graduate school, when I can't find anything explicit in the Directives or the Magesterium, I turn to Health Care Ethics: A Catholic Theological Analysis.

On the bookshelf right by the Bible and my Catechism
So, what does Ashley, et. al. have to say to us:

"We follow a protective opinion in regard to vicarious consent, maintaining that it is not licit to expose a ward to other than minimal risk in non-therapeutic research."(pg. 117) 
"Minimal risk" is usually defined as being no more dangerous than a typical doctor's visit or a normal day at home. So, I guess Benedict Ashley, O.P. (RIP), wouldn't be against this as long as there was minimal risk. Which is exactly what the ethics board called for when they gave their tentative "okay."

The Catholic concept here that best applies is "the dignity of the human person." We cannot do anything that disrespects that. As it says in the Directives:

29. All persons served by Catholic health care have the right and duty to protect and
preserve their bodily and functional integrity. The functional integrity of the person may be sacrificed to maintain the health or life of the person when no other morally permissible means is available.
We are to respect the integrity of the body as much as possible. This Directive was likely referring to things like amputations, but I think it applies here as well. We have a moral obligation not to harm a child even if what we are doing may help the common good of all children.

Too stinking cute. 

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