The highly controversial and potentially lethal anthrax vaccine may be tested on US children if the federal government gets its way. Although adverse event reports related to the vaccine among adult test subjects have included hospitalization, disability and even death, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) is exploring the possibility of testing the vaccine on children.
Nicole Lurie, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the DHHS, recently requested that the National Biodefense Science Board submit an evaluation of safety issues related to testing the anthrax vaccine on children. The DHHS frames the possible testing as an issue of biodefense preparedness. However, the possibility of pediatric testing of the vaccine both ignores the vaccine’s dangers, and raises the specter of class- and/or race-based selection of medical test subjects which has haunted US health agencies for over a century.
Even in the months in 2001 when letters containing anthrax were mailed to several congressional leaders, heightening national fears during the post-9/11 period, Bill First, a physician and then-Senate Majority Leader, urged caution in use of the anthrax vaccine. He told CNN: “There are very real and potentially serious side effects from the vaccine and anyone who elects to receive the vaccine needs to be made aware of that. I do not recommend widespread inoculation. There are too many side effects and if there is limited chance of exposure- the side effects would far outweigh any potential advantage.”