After 50 years as a measles-free nation, an outbreak of measles in December shocked the nation, sparking debate on the benefits and dangers of vaccines. Ultimately, the debate concerns the clash between freedom of choice and public safety rather than a question of medical advantages. At the same time, misinformation about vaccines abounds in Internet forums and local media, exacerbating the public’s fears about immunizations. While medical research proves that vaccination benefits society as a whole, forced immunization that disregards religious and cultural beliefs should not be the solution. Instead, health organizations and medical professionals should collaborate to provide accessible information about vaccinations, their importance and possible side effects. In addition, health experts must challenge and thoroughly debunk every voice that protests against vaccines before ungrounded fears can grip the public.
As per American democratic values, every person reserves the right to make decisions for their own bodies. Mandatory vaccination would remove any freedom of choice and invalidate the concept of informed consent. According to medical law, patients reserve the right to choose whether or not to undergo a medical procedure only after a health professional informs them of the success rate and possible risks. The law should apply the same ethics to vaccination. Furthermore, when we give up the right to make decisions about our own bodies, we lose the privilege of being able to think critically about what’s best for ourselves. Mandatory vaccination would only increase people’s ignorance, as the public would become more passive with regards to vaccinations and their effects. Imposed laws would only curtail people’s choice and antagonize the public as they would feel that the government was overstepping boundaries by making personal choices for them.
Some argue that the main purpose of vaccination is not simply to prevent people from catching incurable diseases but to provide herd immunity. Indeed, the National Institute of Health proposes that some vaccines can be considered “altruistic medical procedures” because they provide more protection to society than the patient, who runs the risks of the associated procedure. In cases where procedures on individuals would protect society at large, public safety should supposedly overrule personal liberty. However, most medical professionals agree that herd immunity can only be achieved if 95 percent of the population is vaccinated. According to a recent Center for Control of Diseases and Prevention report, 94.5% of kindergarteners throughout the nation are vaccinated for measles, mumps, and rubella, and 95.1% are vaccinated for acellular pertussis. In states with the lowest vaccination rates, the percentage of those who are vaccinated borders 90 percent. Such statistics demonstrate that the majority of the population leans toward vaccination, and the likelihood of a disease spreading wildly is very low. In any case, people who are exempting from vaccinations for religious or philosophical reasons are not likely to follow mandatory laws that oppose their principles; people with strong inclinations will certainly find loopholes or ways to avoid vaccinations.
However, anti-vaccine campaigns are gaining momentum, and more people are exempting themselves from vaccinations. Although the danger of contagion may not be immediate, the American public’s lack of knowledge on the topic will hurt future generations. In order to fully maximize herd immunity, our goal should be to reach out to parts of the demographic that remain uncertain about the benefits and risks associated with vaccinations. Ignorance and lack of education threaten public safety more than flexible laws regarding vaccination. A single voice of protest can easily halt several immunization campaigns, because people’s fears of vaccinations stem from lack of knowledge. Even today, anti-vaccination advocates and politicians continue to quote Andrew Wakefield’s thoroughly debunked study from 1998 that linked vaccinations to autism in children. In order to counteract fearful dissent, health professionals and vaccination advocates should make information regarding vaccines readily accessible to the public. This does not simply entail uploading free information on the Internet, but reframing scientific research and experience in a way that would be easily understood by the masses and be used to challenge every media outlet that argues against vaccines. Ironically, the problem lies in America’s success with preventing contagious diseases; American vaccinations have so successfully halted the spread of most diseases that the threat of contagion is not readily apparent to most Americans. Increasing awareness of vaccinations and informing the public of the long history behind vaccines would be the first step in reducing the general ignorance and complacency on the topic.
As per the State of Massachusetts mandate, all college students must be immunized against certain preventable diseases before arriving on campus. Likewise, Wellesley College requires that all students receive vaccinations for measles, mumps, rubella, tetanus, diphtheria, hepatitis B, and meningitis.
Prospective students should not be denied the privilege of education because of their immunization status, but unvaccinated students must uphold the consequences of their choice. If the college asks unvaccinated students to leave the College in cases of a contagion breakout or requests that they refrain from living in dorms altogether, then they must follow the rules to protect themselves and others. Health Services at Wellesley already offers free flu shots intermittently throughout the year, and the lack of expense encourages more students to immunize themselves and strengthens herd immunity.
In a clash between public safety and personal liberty, it seems obvious to protect general society first and foremost. However, forced medical procedures would only serve to antagonize the public even further, as such an imposition would curtail their choice and would remove responsibility for their own bodies. In such cases, we should increase awareness, reduce ignorance and trust that the general public would make an informed choice.
Photo Courtesy of Creative Commons.
Sabrina Leung ‘18 is the Digital Editor majoring in International Relations-Political Science with a minor in History. She is best reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @sabrinatzleung on Twitter.