In a highly unusual outbreak of measles here last month, 12 children fell ill; nine of them had not been inoculated against the virus because their parents objected, and the other three were too young to receive vaccines.
The parents who objected to their children being inoculated are among a small but growing number of vaccine skeptics in California and other states who take advantage of exemptions to laws requiring vaccinations for school-age children.
Do parents have a right to object to their children being vaccinated?
On first blush, I would have to say "yes". Like religion and other things, parents should be able to make decisions about their children’s health. In fact, the government mandating vaccinations of children sounds rather totalitarian.
But doesn’t their "right" stop when it threatens the community at large?
While nationwide over 90 percent of children old enough to receive vaccines get them, the number of exemptions worries many health officials and experts. They say that vaccines have saved countless lives, and that personal-belief exemptions are potentially dangerous and bad public policy because they are not based on sound science.
“If you have clusters of exemptions, you increase the risk of exposing everyone in the community,” said Dr. Omer, who has extensively studied disease outbreaks and vaccines.
There is substantial evidence that communities with pools of unvaccinated clusters risk infecting a broad community that includes people who have been inoculated.
For instance, in a 2006 mumps outbreak in Iowa that infected 219 people, the majority of those sickened had been vaccinated. In a 2005 measles outbreak in Indiana, there were 34 cases, including six people who had been vaccinated.
In other words, if everybody doesn’t get vaccinated, then the vaccination is no good for anybody. And at that point, a parent’s right to avoid vaccination stops, as far as I am concerned. (It’s like the old law school adage: "You have every right to swing your hand around. But that right stops the second your hand touches my face.")
Megan McArdle goes one step further:
I just think that people who are unvaccinated, unless they have a legitimate medical reason for same, should not be allowed to use public roads, public sidewalks, or public services. They have a right not to vaccinate their children. But they do not have a right to risk my health.
The NYT article is a little vague about why some parents are choosing not to have their kids vaccinated. Apparently, it has to do with the threat of adverse side effects. But one wonders just where these parents are getting their information from (the ol’ reliable Internet?, and whether such fears are justified. [UPDATE: Kevin Drum blames it on Robert Kennedy]
We, as a society, sometimes have to pool together to make health decisions that are for the good of the community. Our water supply, for example — each community shares the same resource, so we make a group decision, for the good of the local "village". So, too, it should be with immunization. And I tend to agree with Ms. McArdle — if you want your kid to "opt out", that’s fine. Then that kid should be quarantined. Parents will still have a choice, but it’ll be a harder one — with consequences.