The United Kingdom may take "don't do drugs" to an entirely new level. Several members of the Government-appointed "Brain Science, Addiction, and Drugs" expert committee proposed a national vaccination program for one of the fastest growing child welfare concerns worldwide — drugs.
Under the program presented to Parliament late last month, children in "high risk situations"—children whose family or socio-economic circumstances might make them more susceptible to drug addictions—would be vaccinated against drugs like cocaine, heroin, and nicotine, all closely linked to severe addictions.
Dr. David Nutt, Professor at the University of Bristol, a member of the committee and drugs advisor to the Government was reported in the July 25th Brit newspaper The Independent on Sunday, saying: "People could be vaccinated against drugs at birth as you are against measles. You could say cocaine is more dangerous than measles, for example … addiction and smoking are major causes of premature death."
Even in its very premature stages, the proposal has sparked controversy on both sides of the Atlantic.
"The very idea [of child drug vaccinations] would be highly unethical," says Dr. Max Mehlman, a Law and Biomedical Ethics professor at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, OH. "We have a lot of information missing, particularly safety risks."
"How are we going to know if it's safe? How will we even know if it's working?," Mehlman continues. "Are we going to give [children] cocaine [to test the safety or effectiveness]? It's absurd."
Dr. Margaret Cho, a Bioethics professor at Stanford University, in Palo Alto, CA, adds that while those safety questions are a definite concern, "the prospect of launching a national program to alter behavior, possibly without consent and without examining the long-term effects much more closely is truly frightening."
Safety concerns involving children and the anti-drug vaccinations are echoed even by Xenova, a British biotechnology firm of Berkshire, England. Their anti-drug vaccine testing—the only testing of its kind made public in the UK—has just begun on nicotine, and is slightly more advanced with cocaine.
"We are not aware of any plans to introduce our vaccines to children," Veronica Cefis-Sellar, head of Xeonva's Corporate Communications, explains. "Our vaccines have been created and tested only on consenting adults, and we have not been approached regarding any child inoculations." Cefis-Sellar adds that the anti-cocaine vaccine will not be made available to the public for at least another 2 years.
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The basis behind the UK proposal is simple—drugs and drug-related activities cost money, lots of it. Why not cut the drugs at the source and prevent addiction in the first place? The committee suggests that it would save the economy an estimated £16 billion, or nearly $29.5 billion.
Dr. Donald Landry, an associate professor at Columbia University Medical School/New York Presbyterian Hospital, in New York, NY, was among the first to succeed with an anti-cocaine vaccine, but says that he is still undecided regarding the British proposal.
"The question really is whether we should sign up an entire population for the volitional action of a few," Landry explains.