Anthrax, a term synonymous with bioterrorism and the United States Postal Service, is once again on the lips of many government officials as they recently met to discuss the steps towards vaccinated children against the lethal disease. In a meeting that took place at the end of last month, a government panel decided that once ethical issues are resolved surrounding the issue, the vaccine can then be tested in children to better protect them against the disease if an outbreak or attack were to occur.
“[A]n acute infectious disease caused by a spore-forming bacterium called Bacillus anthracis,” anthrax shot to high-alert levels around 2001, when Americans were warned of possible acts of bioterrorism by those spreading the anthrax disease through its white powdery substance. The disease got a wide level of attention due to the ease of which it could be sent and travel throughout the country by way of the U.S. mail. According to the United States Department of Labor, the disease could be contracted through inhalation, consumption, and most commonly through abrasions or cuts to the skin. Once in the body, symptoms would be similar to those of the common cold—swollen lymph glands, nausea, loss of appetite—and progress to vomiting of blood, severe diarrhea, and possibly death.
In 2001, a scientist at an Army biodefense laboratory, Bruce Ivins, was accused by the FBI of sending the dangerous powder through the mail killing 5 people and making 17 others sick. Before Ivins was charged with the crimes, he was found dead of an apparent overdose of Tylenol. Since this time, however, anthrax has become the biggest name in bioterrorism.
A controversial immunization program, set up by the Pentagon in 1998, was challenged by the courts questioning the safety of the immunized military personnel once it was administered to them. Since this time, the anthrax vaccine has been given to over 2.6 million members of the armed services deployed overseas to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other areas believed to use the disease as a biological weapon against the troops. However, once lawsuits objected to immunization surfaced in 2004, a federal judge suspended the program.
According to the Associated Press, while it is impossible to get the disease from the vaccine, adults who have taken it have had side effects like muscle aches and soreness, fatigue, headaches, and the very rare occasion of an allergic reaction to the vaccination.
Because of these factors, many are cautious of what the potential dangers could be if given to children. Due to these uncertainties, the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) has recommended that the United States Department of Health and Human Services review the ethics of this case before continuing with their testing. Only when this has happened do they want the testing to continue to determine how much and when kids should be immunized.
“We need to know more about the safety and immunogenicity of the vaccine on a large number of children in the event of a bioterrorist’s attack,” explains panel member Ruth Berkelman, of Emory University. Others, like Vera Sharav of a New York-based advocacy group—Alliance for Human Research Protection—agree that until the ethical problems are resolved the controversial program should not proceed: “The trial would expose healthy children to substantial harm with no possibility of benefit.”
Whether or not parents will be willing to get the children inoculated is another question entirely. And one not likely to be answered until further review. To pledge your support for further review and research into an anthrax vaccine for children, sign the petition here, and as always be educated on vaccines for you and your children.
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