The U.S. government for years has prepared for the threat of bioterrorism with a $1.1 billion stockpile of anthrax vaccine, which has been thoroughly tested with adults. Now the question is how to deal with the possibility of child exposure. The National Biodefense Science Board will tackle the dilemma tomorrow when it votes on the possibility of testing anthrax vaccines on healthy children.
"There is a lot of skepticism on the part of the public about vaccines in general," said Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary in charge of bioterrorism at the Department of Health and Human Services, according to The Washington Post. "If you had a situation where a vaccine has never been given to a child, it's pretty hard to think what you could say to people about its safety and efficacy."
Last month, federal advisers recommended pediatric anthrax vaccine testing, which sparked debate within the medical community; neither option--testing children now or waiting until a bioterror attack--is considered palatable. While 5 adults were killed and 17 were sickened when anthrax spores were mailed to media and Senate offices in 2001, children weren't exposed to the biological agent, making their response theoretical.
"At the end of the day, do we want to wait for an attack and give it to millions and millions of children and collect data at that time?" said Daniel Fagbuyi of the Children's National Medical Center in Washington, as quoted by the Post. "Or do we want to say: 'How do we best protect our children?' We can take care of Grandma and Grandpa, Uncle and Auntie. But right now, we have nothing for the children."
Anthrax can be contracted via inhalation, skin exposure or gastrointestinally. The CDC noted that when anthrax is contracted through the skin, it is not fatal in 80% of cases, regardless of whether treatment is administered. In its gastrointestinal form, 25% to 50% of cases will result in death. About half of those who contracted anthrax through inhaling spores during the 2001 scare died.