In Vermont’s 2014 State of the State Address, former Gov. Peter Shumlin said “we have seen a more than 770% increase in treatment for all opiates” in the State since 2000, in what he described as “a full-blown heroin crisis.”
In recent years, Vermont has frequently been referred to as the heroin capital of the country as it continues to battle against its position as a trafficking route between Canada and the East Coast’s large cities.
That battle just might soon see a substantial victory, as The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) in California recently announced that a vaccine “to block the ‘high’ of heroin has proven effective in non-human primates.”
According to TSRI, the vaccine enables the immune system to recognize the molecular structure of heroin and produce antibodies that keep the drug from causing euphoria in the brain of the user.
In other words, the vaccine does not function as a cure for addiction. Instead, the vaccine immunizes the body against getting high from using heroin. If it proves effective in clinical trials in humans, it may some day become commonplace for children to get their heroin vaccine alongside their hepatitis and polio vaccines.
But as with any innovation in modern medicine, before we can allow heroin vaccines to become common practice, we must first assess the ethics of such a vaccination. Few people today would argue that addiction is a disease, and that those who are addicted deserve and need help. But TSRI’s heroin vaccine doesn’t immunize against addiction — it immunizes against the high that heroin causes.
To start with, there is no reason to believe that this would help anyone who is already addicted to heroin. Heroin users would stop getting high from using heroin if the vaccine is successful, but they would still experience withdrawals if they were to stop using the drug — or worse, even while using the drug. Heroin withdrawals are extremely severe, and in the worst cases can be fatal.
Therefore, it stands to reason that people would be immunized before they had any chance to come into contact with heroin; i.e. at a young age. Provided it were proven safe to administer to children, parents would almost certainly elect to immunize their children from the dangers of a life spent on heroin. But would it be ethical?
Essentially, the vaccine would alter the child’s immune system in a way that would give them a “long-term immunity to heroin.” They would be unable to get high, not unable to get addicted. And what if the particular “part of the heroin molecule’s telltale structure” that their
immune system is trained to recognize is similar to the structure of any other molecule which could be beneficial to a human being — such as being used to actually combat addiction.