Adults who participate in scientific studies (to test the efficacy and safety of a vaccine, for example) sometimes do it because it might help future patients, even if they themselves are unlikely to benefit. A good example was the testing of a vaccine for anthrax; the adults who volunteered were unlikely to benefit directly since there is essentially no danger of exposure to anthrax except in the unlikely event of a terrorist attack. Ethically, it is considered acceptable to involve adults in studies that will not benefit them directly, because adults are capable of giving informed consent.
But what about children? The anthrax vaccine has never been tested in children because of an ethical dilemma – who would give informed consent? Is it right to let parents make the decision? Is a child capable of giving informed consent? On the other hand, what will happen if we don’t test the vaccine in children and there is a terrorist attack some day - would a adult dose of anthrax vaccine be appropriate for children? No one knows for sure.
Earlier this month the National Biodefense Science Board (NBSB) recommended that the anthrax vaccine be tested on children now rather than later, provided that the trial is approved by an ethics review board. The board’s argument is that we can experiment now on healthy children, or essentially run a mass experiment on children after there is a terrorist attack, when it may be too late. Of course, their agenda is to protect against a terrorist attack. It will be interesting to see what an ethics review board decides.
What do you think?