Test anthrax vaccine in kids? Feds mull thorny question

What's the truth about childhood vaccines? Are they an effective way to safeguard kids against a range of potentially deadly illnesses? Or do they cause autism and other medical problems? Keep clicking as Seth Mnookin, the author of "The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear," separates vaccine fact from fiction with his list of common misconceptions. It's information that just might save a life. istockphoto

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(CBS/AP) Fears of bioterrorism have federal officials grappling with a question that raises big ethical and logistical concerns:

Should the anthrax vaccine be tested in children?

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The government has stockpiles of the vaccine, and it's been widely tested in adults. But kids? That's never been done.

The question is whether to test the vaccine in kids now so doctors would know if and how well children respond to the shots - or wait and, if there is an attack, offer the vaccine at that time and hope for the best.

That issue was on the table Friday before the National Biodefense Science Board, which advises the Department of Health and Human Services on chemical, biological, and nuclear threats.

Even if the board green-lights the tests, there is no deadline for the government to decide whether to go along. If it does agree, it's not clear how much time would be needed to find money to fund the research and get clearance from review boards at medical centers where the studies would be conducted.

Another big question: Would parents would sign up their children to test a vaccine when there is no immediate threat? It's impossible to get anthrax from the vaccine, but there are side effects. In adults, soreness at the site of the injection, muscle aches, fatigue and headache are the main ones, and rare but serious allergic reactions have been reported.

Anthrax is one of several potential bioterror weapons and is of special interest because it was used in letters sent to the media and others in 2001, claiming five lives and sickening 17. That prompted widespread screening of mail and better ventilation and testing at postal facilities and government agencies.

The FBI blamed the attacks-by-mail on Army anthrax researcher Bruce Ivins, but he committed suicide before he could be charged.

Anthrax can be hard to treat, especially if someone has breathed anthrax spores. Millions of doses of antibiotics have been stockpiled since the 2001 attacks, and two experimental toxin-clearing treatments also are being stored.

U.S. troops deploying to Iraq, Afghanistan and some other countries are required to get anthrax shots. Since 1998, more than 1 million have been vaccinated. After lawsuits objecting to the requirement, a federal judge suspended the program in 2004, finding fault in the FDA's process for approving the drug. The next year, the FDA reaffirmed its finding that the vaccine was safe.

What do you think? Should government test anthrax vaccine in kids? Or would that be unethical?

  • David W Freeman

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