Bioethics conference focuses on vaccines

Should healthcare workers be required to get flu vaccines or lose their jobs? Should schools allow unvaccinated students to enroll? Should girls be required to get the vaccine against human papillomavirus (HPV) that can cause cervical cancer?

Those are just some of the questions scholars and medical experts intend to address at a bioethics conference to be held at Penn on Sept. 21. Titled “The Science, Ethics and Politics of Vaccine Mandates,” the conference is being hosted by the Penn Center for Bioethics and sponsored by The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania Health System, The Society of Health Care Epidemiology of America and the Center for Vaccine Ethics and Policy.

The issue of vaccines and vaccine mandates has become front-page news in recent months, and many institutions are weighing whether to mandate shots for their workers, says Arthur Caplan, the Emmanuel and Robert Hart Director of Penn’s Center for Bioethics and the Sydney D. Caplan Professor of Bioethics.

Recently, celebrities such as actress Jenny McCarthy have attracted international attention questioning the safety and necessity of many vaccines for young children, arguing that they have the potential to trigger harmful side effects, including autism and other neurological disorders.

Earlier this year, pertussis, known more commonly as whooping cough, reemerged as a public health concern with several thousand cases reported in California and sharp rises in New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. and other urban areas.

“The question of vaccine mandates has come up in other areas as well, such as bio-terror attacks and global pandemics,” says Caplan.

The conference will feature presentations by experts, including representatives from the pharmaceutical industry, and panel discussions about infectious diseases, pediatrics, occupational medicine, bioethics and public policy.

The goal is to step away from what has become an increasingly heated debate and conduct a meaningful dialogue about the opposing views, Caplan says. But, he adds, it should be noted that Penn’s Center for Bioethics is not neutral on the subject.

“Our stance is that vaccines are effective, safe and desirable to use. They have been a huge contribution to public health,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean there still aren’t tough questions to raise.”

Topics scheduled to be discussed include the history of vaccine mandates, mandates for healthcare workers, a government perspective on mandates, vaccine mandates and children, the HPV vaccine and future directions of mandates.

The conference is free and open to the public, although attendees must register at bioevmc@mail.med.upenn.edu or contact Janice Pringle or Matthew Isensberg at 215-898-7136.

Originally published on September 16, 2010