Looking at the Suggested ‘Scarlet A’ for Unvaccinated Kids through the Lens of Ryan White
Guest Editorial by Beth Clay,
Today I saw a Facebook posting that reminded me of the 1980s and the 1640s. The posting was one of many ill-informed, potentially fake and hate-filled railings against parents who have made a medical or religious decision not to vaccinate their child with the Measles, Mumps, Rubella (MMR) vaccine. This particular posting suggested that unvaccinated children should wear a skull and crossbones marking to identify them as unvaccinated. The posting suggested it be on the child’s forehead, which is why I think it may have been a propaganda posting because hopefully no American actually posted something so egregious. I worry we are quickly devolving as a society over the measles matter. I will not call 626 cases of measles in the US over the course of four months in a population of 330 million an epidemic because it is not.
The Scarlet Letter: As the day went on, the comment stuck in my mind. This is not the Boston of the 1640’s depicted in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Scarlet Letter” a work of fiction in which a woman is forced to wear the Scarlet “A” on her clothing to announced to all in the public that she is an adulteress. Can we even imagine an America in which everyone who for instance has speeding tickets has to wear on the front of their clothing a Scarlet “S” when in public; or someone who has a sexually transmitted disease has to wear a Black X. As I write this, I am reminded of how Hitler forced people who were Jewish to declare their religion by wearing a Star of David on their jacket, setting them up for persecution and discrimination. Do we really want to persecute unvaccinated children?
Ryan White: It is also not 1984 when a young boy named Ryan White developed HIV/AIDS from a blood transfusion he received to manage his hemophilia. In 1985 after his Mom prevailed in court against the Kokomo, Indiana school district that had refused to allow Ryan to attend public school, Ryan shared how he was verbally abused and harassed. If you are too young to remember HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and early 1990s and how the public and politicians treated those who were infected, it is not one of those times we as a nation can be proud of. Many from school officials, to politicians, to families and the general public who feared the ‘unknowns’ associated with HIV/AIDS, stood in judgement of those who contracted the disease from sexual activity especially if they were gay men. Ryan’s case was different, he was a teenager who did nothing ‘wrong’ in the eyes of society. He was young, middle class, white, and from the Heartland of our country. He could have been the young boy next door to any of us. I remember discussions about Ryan and the fear that he might infect classmates. This was about the same time there was a circulating story that the government could not rule out that if a mosquito was flying around and landed on and drew blood from an HIV/AIDS infected individual; and then flew off and landed on someone else that they would not infect that second individual. The fear of just being in the room with someone with HIV was real.
In the early 1990s, after having worked with Dr. Richard Krause, the former Director of the NIAID during those early HIV days; I learned a great deal about our ‘microbial’ world. He had retired from the NIH to go to Emory; which proved not to be a good fit for him, so he returned to the NIH as a Senior Scientist at the Fogarty International Center where I got to know him. In 2005, in the tribute that Dr. Krause wrote about his friend Mac McCarty, the “last survivor of the three-man team that demonstrated that genes are made of DNA” (and not protein as many originally thought). Dr. Krause quoted Dr. McCarty’s paper, “The 1944 paper on pneumococcal transformation begins: “Biologists have long attempted by chemical means to induce in higher organisms predictable and specific changes which thereafter could be transmitted in series as hereditary characters.” All that, and then some, has come to pass: witness the human genome, recombinant DNA technology, and genetically engineered animals that produce complex proteins such as human antibodies.”(1)
In 1968 and 1971, Dr. Krause and his colleagues’ studying rabbits and immune response to immunization reported:
“A number of variables are known to influence the magnitude of the immune response including the chemical and physical nature of the antigen, the method of immunization, prior sensitization to the same or a similar antigen, and the genetic background of the animal. Furthermore, these factors may either amplify or limit the wide variability in the characteristics of the immune globulins which are produced.”(2)
“Certain rabbits immunized with streptococcal and pneumococcal vaccines produce high concentrations of antibodies to the carbohydrate antigens. These antibodies may have a remarkable molecular uniformity, and studies on their primary structure are currently underway. Since only a small percentage of random-bred rabbits produced uniform antibodies in quantities which were sufficient for extensive structural studies selective breeding of these special rabbits was begun in order to increase the number of rabbits which respond in this way.”(3)
Scientists like Dr. Krause recognize that the different rabbits responded differently to the vaccines they were studying based on several factors including genetics and prior exposures. His 1971 report focused on increasing the stock of animals that would be useful in research; however, the two papers highlight key factors that can be translated to our understanding of the human response to vaccines – different people respond differently based on numerous factors including genetics, environmental factors, and prior exposures.
It is why we cannot have a one size fits all vaccine program.
It’s About Preserving Rights: One of the reasons I am vocal about the rights of parents to make medical decisions whether to or not to vaccinate is because I believe in liberty. I also believe in religious liberty. Our nation was founded on the premise of liberty. I have twice sworn an oath to protect and preserve the Constitution. It is not an oath that ended when I left government service. We must stand together and protect parental rights and religious liberty. I did not get involved in investigating the state of our vaccine policies in the United States, and concerns about vaccine injury because someone I loved suffered a serious reaction to a vaccine, but initially because it was my job. I stayed engaged when it was no longer my job because it is a moral obligation to continue seeking truth and justice.
Doesn’t the MMR Vaccine Protect the Vaccinated? Government authorities, Merck the vaccine manufacturer in the United States and doctors who appear on television promoting vaccines all say that the MMR is great. The public has been told that the vaccine is safe and effective. If the vaccine is everything that it is promoted to be, given the high immunization rates nation-wide the herd immunity public health officials promote as the goal to protect those who cannot be vaccinated has been met.
The suggestion that parents who have obtained medical or religious exemptions to measles (MMR) vaccination must be forced to vaccinate their child to protect those who can’t be vaccinated is a perverse view of public health. Parents with children too young to be vaccinated, or with medical conditions that preclude getting the MMR have suggested that their rights to take their child out in public during an outbreak is more important than the rights of parents of unvaccinated children. They seem to ignore the reality that the MMR is a live virus vaccine and can shed measles virus (as well as Mumps and Rubella) for months after given. We do not know if the increased number of measles cases in the US in 2019 is at all related to vaccine strain measles because so far, there are no journalists asking the tough questions, like whether or not those diagnosed with measles have been tested to confirm the strain of measles, to determine if it was brought in from Israel, Honduras, or the Philippines or if it originated in the US from wild-type measles. So far public health authorities have failed to report if they are testing and if so to make those test rules public.
I would suggest that it is the responsibility of the parents of a child who is unvaccinated because of age or medical condition to protect that child. It is not your neighbor’s job to protect your child, nor the parent of another child, but yours. Measles is not the bubonic plaque. It can be deadly but typically is not. And even if Measles was a deadly disease in the US in 2019, taking away the rights of others, labeling unvaccinated children so they can be discriminated against and bullied is not the answer. Demonizing the parents, advocates, and medical professionals who speak out about vaccine injury and call for improved quality and a restoration of parental rights is not the answer. And it is not the fault of Dr. Andrew Wakefield! (The misinformation campaign about Andy is a story for another day.)
Is our Nation Lost? Our civilized society is devolving quickly into a nation that bullies parents, threatens $1,000 fines and jail for failure of parents to compromise religious belief and vaccinate their child. Local and national media outlets dutifully report about the measles outbreak and shame parents who have not vaccinated. I have seen repeatedly reporters on Fox News who promote themselves as conservatives, and anti-abortion shame parents for not giving their kids the MMR vaccine without acknowledging (or maybe oblivious to the reality) that the MMR is produced on two cell lines developed from tissue taken two aborted human fetuses. Can you be anti-abortion and pro-MMR? I have watched some of my favorite local media anchors (who happen to be African American) push the vaccine without acknowledging the CDC Whistleblower who saved the data covered up by his colleagues in the Atlanta MMR study that showed a statistically significant increased risk of autism to African American boys based on the timing of the vaccine (before 36 months). I have yet to see a single outlet have a true discussion that is fair and balanced. Where are the interviews with parents of kids who were injured by the MMR and compensated in the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program? It is as if investigative journalism has been banned when it comes to the measles outbreak. The power of Merck and the pharmaceutical industry to control news stories is real. Think about all the moneys the networks make at local and national level from drug ads.
Is the great experiment of our Constitutional Republic going to be lost because our federal government in the 1980s took away the rights of parents to sue Merck, the maker of the MMR and to sue the doctor, nurse, or pharmacist who injected the vaccine only to have that assault on civil liberty compounded by forced vaccination by the state and local authorities?
Ryan White’s legacy with HIV/AIDS turned out not to just be about getting to attend public school. His legacy lives on every year at the NIH where it is mandated that each agency track how much money is spent on HIV/AIDS. His short life lives on every time we fight against discrimination and bullying. And his legacy lives on when we promote the rights of every citizen.
It is my hope that we can move past the fear-mongering and hysteria, the name-calling and divisiveness of the propaganda campaigns online and in the news and in statehouses across the country.
- Krause RM. Obituary: Maclyn McCarty (1911-2005). Nature. 2005;433(7024):372. doi: 10.1038/433372a. PubMed PMID: 15674278.
- Braun DG, Eichmann K, Krause RM. Rabbit antibodies to streptococcal carbohydrates. Influence of primary and secondary immunization and of possible genetic factors on the antibody response. J Exp Med. 1969;129(4):809-30. PubMed PMID: 5766948; PubMed Central PMCID: PMCPMC2138622.
- Eichmann K, Braun DG, Krause RM. Influence of genetic factors on the magnitude and the heterogeneity of the immune response in the rabbit. J Exp Med. 1971;134(1):48-65. PubMed PMID: 5558071; PubMed Central PMCID: PMCPMC2139032.