In recent days a controversy has arisen over whether parents should be required to vaccinate their children. Some politicians with presidential aspirations were criticized for defending the rights of parents to make that decision. As an internal medicine doctor, I believe strongly in the efficacy of vaccines. I also believe strongly that our vaccines (and all of our medical advances) should be safe and derived in a morally principled fashion.
There is an ethical concern about the measles vaccine issue that I do not believe the American public is aware: a component of the current MMR vaccine is derived from an aborted fetal cell line. As such, there is a large group of Americans who will not avail themselves of this “tainted” therapy. The unfortunate truth is that there are ethical, morally acceptable alternative vaccines that are simply not made available to Americans.
Measles is a viral disease that can lead to infection of the brain (encephalitis) in 1 in 1,000 cases, resulting in serious neurologic complications and sometimes death. In addition, it can lead to other problems such as pneumonia. Vaccines for measles are now commonly combined in the MMR vaccine with vaccines for rubella and mumps. These diseases can also result in deadly complications. Vaccination can nearly eliminate the risks from these viral infections.
In order for vaccines to be made for viruses, the virus must first be isolated, then grown in a cell line to provide sufficient numbers of the virus. That viral material is again isolated and put into a vaccine to be injected into the recipient. In isolating the virus after it is grown in a cell line, particles from the cells, including particles of the host DNA in which it was grown, are collected and become part of the material that is injected into the recipient. When the cell line used is of human origin, legitimate concerns about the consequences of injecting another’s DNA into the recipient have been raised and not yet answered.
The rubella virus used in the rubella component of the MMR vaccine was obtained from a fetus that was aborted in the 1970s. To make the current MMR vaccine, it is grown in a human cell line, WI-38, that was derived from a 3-month-old fetus that was electively aborted in the early 1960s because the parents felt they had too many children. The cells from that original fetus have been kept in culture media, and have given rise to multiple daughter populations that are use in making vaccines.
The strain of virus used in the measles and mumps components of the MMR vaccine were derived from the blood of living children who had the disease in question and is grown in chick embryo cells, hence, there is no ethical concern about these components of the vaccine.
Prior to 2009, Merck, the manufacturer of the MMR vaccine used in the U.S. and in many other countries, made available individually separate vaccines for mumps and measles that were derived from the ethically acceptable sources as described. In 2009, they stopped making these vaccines available, despite reassurances to the contrary. Since then, Merck has refused to license these vaccines to other companies who were interested in making them available to the public. It has been since 2009 that the incidence of measles in this country has risen, so it is not inconceivable that legitimate ethical concerns have been at least one factor for the decline in the rate of measles vaccination.
The ethical problem is not isolated to the MMR vaccine. Cell lines from aborted fetuses are used in the vaccines for Hepatitis A, chicken pox, shingles, rabies, some small pox vaccines, some polio vaccines, some combination polio vaccines such as Pentacel and Quadracel, and in some of the new Ebola vaccines. Additionally aborted fetal cells are utilized in some treatments for hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and rheumatoid arthritis. The fact is, that none of these need to come from such sources, but could be made from other cell lines readily available in research circles.
For instance, the Kitasato Institute in Japan makes MMR vaccines that are ethically acceptable. Regrettably, the FDA decided not to allow their importation into the United States. Individuals can travel to Japan to receive these vaccines, but obviously, that is not a sensible solution to improving vaccination rates significantly.
Politicians and some in the media have suggested mandating vaccinations of children against the moral objections of their parents. Those same public figures would serve us better by helping to promote the manufacture or importation of vaccines that are derived ethically. Parents and their children deserve wholesome untainted vaccine alternatives to promote the health and the safety of their children.
This story comes from a Feb. 13 posting on Crisis magazine by Jay Carpenter, M.D.