Vaccines have saved lives, eradicated diseases, and led to healthier populations. But with old diseases making a comeback, should vaccines be mandatory?
France has moved to make vaccines recommended by health authorities mandatory by 2018. In an address before Parliament, French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said it was “not admissible” that children are still dying of measles, citing that France is the home Louis Pasteur – the chemist and vaccine pioneer – and that a measles outbreak in Europe has seen 500 cases in January of this year alone. Measles is the leading cause of death for children, with 134,200 people dying from the disease in 2015, according to the World Health Organization.
Since 1998, an anti-vaccine movement has grown up around a study by Andrew Wakefield, which has been debunked and discredited, that linked childhood vaccines to autism. Wakefield falsified the data in the study and misrepresented the health and medical histories of the 12 patients featured in the study. Fiona Godlee, editor-in-chief of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) told CNN, “It’s one thing to have a bad study, a study full of error, and for the authors to then admit they made errors. But in this case, we have a very different picture of what seems to be a deliberate attempt to create an impression that there was a link by falsifying data.” In 2011, Britain stripped Wakefield of his medical license. In the wake of the study, vaccine rates dropped to 80% in Britain while cases of measles soared.
In the US, outbreaks of measles are increasing, and vaccination rates have remained between at around 80-90%. There is a strong anti-vaccination contingent in the United States, led by celebrities including Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy (who claimed her son’s health issues were vaccine-related), and Rob Schneider. In Minnesota, anti-vaccine groups are being blamed for a measles outbreak among the state’s Somali immigrant community. In 2004, over 90% of 2-year-old children of Somali descent were vaccinated against measles, mumps, and Rubella (MMR). In 2014, that number had plummeted to just over 40%. There were also outbreaks at a megachurch in Texas (2013) and at Disneyland (2015). Measles was a disease the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) listed as eliminated in the US in 2000. Anti-vaccine activists cite not only Wakefield’s study, but say the ingredients in vaccines cause physical harm, that “natural immunity” is all that is needed to combat contagious diseases, and that vaccines are merely a profit driver for greedy big-pharma companies.
The scientific ignorance of the anti-vaccine crowd is stunning. While it is true there is a risk for an adverse reaction or complication from a vaccine, those are rare and infrequent. Vaccines are not always fail-safe; viruses mutate and vaccines must be adapted to address these mutations. We see this with the annual flu shots that do not necessarily cover all strains of the flu. Yet they are highly effective; usually producing immunity 90%-100% of the time. Vaccines do not cause autism, but they have rid the world of some of the most debilitating and deadly diseases known to man, including polio, measles, and small pox. In the 1950s, polio caused 15,000 cases of paralysis annually in the United States; after the introduction of polio vaccines in 1955 and 1963, the number of cases fell under 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s. Before the measles vaccine, 3 to 4 million people contracted the disease annually; of those, 400-500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 4,000 developed encephalitis (brain swelling). Small pox was eradicated in North America in the 1950s; prior to vaccinations 30% of those who contracted the virus died and those who survived were sometimes left with severe scars. For those who cannot receive vaccines, due to allergies or other underlying health issues, or for those whose vaccines do not work effectively, the concept of herd immunity is vital. Vaccinating your child not only protects them, but it protects the children around them who may not be able to get vaccines, as well as those kids for whom vaccines are less effective.
There is also a healthy dose of paranoia amongst some of the anti-vaccine crowd. This includes claims that toxic levels of formaldehyde, mercury, aluminum, and sodium are present in vaccines, accompanied with memes to back up their assertions. In Mother Jones, a study showed that multiple strategies for changing the minds of anti-vaccine individuals failed.
In California, anti-vaccine rallies compared the state, which passed tougher restrictions on allowing unimmunized children in schools and daycares, to Nazi Germany and calling it a police state, and Rep. Jim Patterson – who opposed the bill – said requiring children be vaccinated is like sending them to a concentration camp. Allison Hagood, professor of psychology and author of Your Baby’s Best Shot: Why Vaccines Are Safe and Save Lives also moderates a pro-vaccine Facebook group and has had her address posted by anti-vaccine groups. Which brings us back to France. Like California, the state is attempting to stop a serious problem – the outbreak of highly communicable, often deadly diseases – through the use of scientifically proven vaccinations.
The anti-vaccine crowd is to blame, in part, for such mandates. They cling – stubbornly – to disproven claims, pseudoscience, and wild theories about vaccines, while ignoring mounds of evidence that show vaccines are safe and effective. It’s a fine metaphor for so much government overreach: people declining to act with personal responsibility leads to the government passing laws and regulations to force compliance.
For the libertarian-minded among us, the state mandating anything – even for the “common good” – is a road we do not want to travel down lightly, if at all. Every mandate is a curtailment of our liberty, and a step toward letting the government have a bigger and bigger say in how we parent our children and run our lives. There is a fine line between respecting an individual’s freedom to not vaccinate, and recognizing when such behavior defies logic and reason and poses a threat to the health and well being of others. The government, when faced with outbreaks of serious diseases once eradicated, has no choice but to act. Unless we do first.