The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this month that more than 100 cases of measles have been diagnosed in 10 states. Of those infected, 55 are in Washington state and most occurred in children younger than 10 whose parents chose to forgo vaccinations. Across the border in Vancouver, Canadian health officials have confirmed a measles outbreak after eight children were infected in three schools, which has been traced back to a family that chose not to vaccinate their children.
This raises serious public health questions, including: What is government’s role in encouraging vaccinations and preventing a public health crisis? While it’s important for government to defer to parents in making health decisions for their children, public officials have a duty to ensure health and safety standards in public facilities.
First, public officials should educate the public about the safety record of vaccines. Tremendous damage has been done by those who push the erroneous and widely debunked claim that vaccinations cause autism. Study after study has confirmed that this isn’t true, and the doctor who originally suggested the vaccine-autism link was found to have committed fraud and he was subsequently stripped of his medical license. Public health officials need to make sure the message of vaccine safety is loud and clear.
But government shouldn’t stop there: Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children should lose access to public schools and other government services. Currently 17 states — including Washington — allow parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids if they have a “philosophical objection” to vaccines. In other words, it renders the rule that parents must vaccinate their child before they can attend public school meaningless because it allows parents who are opposed to vaccines, for any or no reason whatsoever, to bypass the rules and enroll their children anyway. States should do away with this “philosophical” exemption.
States can and should still allow for medical and religious exemptions to vaccinations. The vast majority of recognized religious organizations in the United States approve of and encourage vaccinations. Even the Amish encourage vaccinations, although they have a lower vaccination rate than the general population. Yet, still, the state should accommodate the small number of people who can prove they belong to a religious group that opposes vaccinations as a part of their faith.
The much bigger exemption class involves people who cannot receive a vaccination due to medical reasons — these include newborns, the elderly, those with certain cancers or allergies, and others who are otherwise immunodeficient. These people are the very individuals who would benefit from a stricter vaccination policy that limits the availability of exemptions.
Those who are medically unable to receive a vaccination need to be protected by what’s known as “herd immunity,” which occurs when a large percentage of a population is immunized and as a result there are fewer potential carriers to spread the disease. This protects everyone. Yet, even a small reduction in the rate of vaccinations can compromise this principle and increase the risk of an outbreak of disease, putting those with medical exemptions in grave danger.
The state should also consider limiting those who fail to vaccinate their children other government services — such as housing assistance, access to childcare benefits, food programs and other welfare programs. This would encourage more people to take action and recognize that they have a responsibility to protect their children and the community.
Yet government policy isn’t going to be enough to reverse the trend of so many parents opting against vaccinating their children and putting vulnerable communities at tremendous risk. We need public leaders everywhere to remind people of their responsibility to their fellow man.
Church leaders should be speaking from the pulpit about the importance of vaccines and the moral responsibility each of us has to get vaccinated. Politicians should remind the citizenry of the social contract and that we owe it to our neighbors and the weakest in our communities to protect them from deadly diseases. Doctors should refuse to accept parents into their private practices unless they vaccinate. And fellow parents should reject the conspiracy theories offered up by anti-vaccine parents to show them the social cost of peddling such dangerous nonsense.
The government shouldn’t force anyone to do anything to which they object. That’s something on which we should all agree. But the government certainly has a role to play to encourage the practice of vaccinating kids and prevent the resurgence of these deadly contagious diseases.