This piece and the one that follows, “The Paradox of Government Vaccine Mandates” by Tim Rubbelke, present a point and counterpoint in the current resurgence of debate over vaccines. The first, by Kristen Senetar, outlines the positives of maximum vaccination while the second examines the problematic nature of enforcing this notion.
By Kristen Senetar
If you’ve turned on the news lately, you’ve probably heard about the outbreak of measles in the United States. Although the infectious disease has been considered eliminated from the United States since the year 20001, more than 120 people have contracted it since the beginning of this year.2 How could an outbreak like this happen when there is a vaccine to protect us from measles? Should everyone be required to be vaccinated?
Vaccines are used to protect us against numerous diseases: measles, mumps, polio and countless others. The two-dose measles vaccine, which is spread out over several years, is 97% effective.3 The protection offered by this and other vaccines has helped our world become a much healthier place. While not 100% effective, vaccines have saved countless lives by offering a great defense against diseases that can often turn deadly. They are a quick and easy way to protect yourself and your family from illnesses. So why wouldn’t every parent vaccinate their child?
Some people do have concerns about vaccines. Over the past decade, there has been a growing fear that vaccines are linked to autism. However, the 1998 article, which stated that certain vaccines increase the risk of autism has been proven false, retracted from the Lancet, and the author of the paper later lost his medical license.4 There are also some individuals who cannot be vaccinated due to medical conditions such as certain allergies or suppressed immune systems. However, this number of individuals who cannot receive vaccines due to medical reasons is significantly smaller than those who can.
Should everyone be required to get vaccinated against measles and other communicable diseases?
The short answer is yes, everyone should be required to get vaccinated for everything possible, as suggested by their doctor. Except for those who have a specific medical condition and those with religious objections, most Americans can receive all vaccines. It is essential that the majority of the population gets vaccinated because it will support herd immunity. This notion is essential to public health, stating that if the number of people who are vaccinated is significantly greater than the number of those who are not, the vaccinated population can essentially protect the unvaccinated population. However, as the unvaccinated group grows larger and larger, herd immunity becomes less and less effective. Therefore, it is crucial that those who can be vaccinated do so in an effort to protect themselves and others.
There are also some people who have religious objections to vaccines. While religious freedom is a valued good, parents’ choices to not vaccinate endanger their children. If they will not vaccinate their children, then perhaps alternative actions should be put in place during periods of outbreaks, such as not allowing them to go to school. If an unvaccinated child were exposed to a disease, like the measles, and went to school before realizing what they had, they would be placing everyone at their school at risk of exposure. Even though most vaccinated children would go unharmed, the vaccine is not 100% effective. Keeping unvaccinated children out of school during times of outbreaks would help protect both the vaccinated and unvaccinated population.
Medical conditions aside, is it ethical to require everyone to vaccinate his or her children? This can be answered using two of the ethical principles: beneficence and non-maleficence. Take, for example, a newborn baby named Joe. Joe hasn’t been exposed to the germs of the outside world, like the cold virus or measles. He begins his life by staying inside most of the time, only going out for short walks or trips to the doctor’s office. Shortly after turning one, Joe receives his first MMR vaccine, as suggested by his doctor. As he continues to grow, Joe receives all the suggested vaccinations and lives a fairly healthy life. One day, while on an airplane, Joe, who is now a teenager, unknowingly sits next to someone infected with measles. Since Joe received the measles vaccine, no harm comes from the situation and he continues to be healthy as he grows into an adult. This scenario supports the principle of beneficence because the vaccines helped keep Joe healthy and protected against disease.
Now, imagine the same child, Joe, had parents who decided, for non-medical or religious reasons, to not vaccinate him as suggested by his doctor. Joe grew normally, just like kids who did receive vaccines, and led a fairly healthy childhood. One day, Joe, who is now a teenager, got on an airplane and unknowingly sat next to someone who had the measles. Since the measles is a highly communicable disease and the two were sitting so close together, Joe was exposed to the disease. Joe, who never knew the person next to him had the measles, felt fine after leaving the airport but a few days later starts experiencing symptoms. In a matter of days, Joe grows very sick and ends up in the hospital. After several long days, Joe begins to feel better and finally makes a full recovery. While the outcome of a full recovery is the best case, Joe experienced unnecessary suffering and harm. Therefore, the decision Joe’s parents made to not vaccinate him violates the ethical principle of non-maleficence.
Overall, vaccines were created to protect us from harm. No medical intervention is 100% effective or 100% safe. Some people do experience reactions to vaccines, but the majority does not. For most people, vaccines offer a greater benefit than they do the possibility of harm. Medical conditions aside, it is our duty to protect others and ourselves from diseases like the measles by following medical guidance to receive vaccinations. Who knows, the life you save might just be your own.
Kristen is currently a Regulatory Assistant at the University of Texas Southwestern. She received a B.S. from Butler University in biology with minors in mathematics and chemistry and a Master's in Bioethics from Case Western Reserve University. Her interests in the bioethics field include genetics, vulnerable populations and the rights of the unborn.
1,3 "Measles Vaccination." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 4 Feb. 2015. Web. 14 Feb. 2015. <http://www.cdc.gov/measles/vaccination.html>.
2 "Measles Cases and Outbreaks." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 Feb. 2015. Web. 14 Feb. 2015. <http://www.cdc.gov/measles/cases-outbreaks.html>.
4 Caplan, Arthur. "There Is No Other Side to the Vaccine Debate." Chicagotribune.com. 13 Feb. 2015. Web. 14 Feb. 2015. <http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-measles-vaccine-jenny-mccarthy-autism-ebola-perspec-0213-jm-20150212-story.html>.