Responsibility or Right? California's Mandatory Vaccines Debate

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After a recent measles outbreak that affected more than 100 people, California has banned both religious and personal-belief vaccination exemptions for schoolchildren in the state, joining only Mississippi and West Virginia in such strict vaccination laws. Is opting out of a public health measure a right, even if it puts countless lives in danger?

The ruling is expected to affect tens of thousands of California families, and a court battle over parents’ rights to choose whether or not to vaccinate their children is likely to follow the measure, which goes into effect next year.

“California’s weakened public health defenses against measles and other preventable diseases led to the adoption of the measure,” reports the Los Angeles Times, a move that is intended to “stem the rising number of parents who opt not to inoculate their children.”

The Times reports that last fall, “13,592 kindergarten students — 2.54% of California’s kindergartners — had personal-belief exemptions on file. That is a sharp increase from 1998, when 4,032 kindergartners, or 0.77%, had them.”

Much of the concern over the safety of vaccinations came as a result of a now discredited study linking vaccines to an increased risk of autism in children. That study’s findings have become the hallmark issue of outspoken comedian and author Jenny McCarthy, whose son is autistic, as well as other celebrities including Jenna Elfman, Rob Schneider and Alicia Silverstone.

“The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases,” California Governor Jerry Brown said in a prepared statement. “While it's true that no medical intervention is without risk, the evidence shows that immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.”

But despite the rise in vaccine-preventable outbreaks like the measles case that started at Disneyland in Orange County, Calif., earlier this year, fears about the risks of vaccines still exist. The measure has led to no shortage of outrage from parents who choose not to vaccinate, as well as parents who do vaccinate but who don’t believe the state should dictate a family’s right to choose.

It’s clearly a complex issue: Vaccines are proven to decrease the spread of communicable diseases, but there are risks, as with any medical procedure. But should parents be allowed to opt-out simply because they aren’t sure about the risks?

Consider other mandatory rulings: Five-year-olds can’t legally drive cars. Neither can 55-year-olds if they aren’t licensed to operate a moving vehicle. This is a public safety measure that protects our health and reduces the risk of car accidents on the road, one few people find an imposition on their right to choose.

Or consider the legal ages for purchasing cigarettes or alcohol. Those too are safety measures regulated by the government. A ten-year-old should neither be smoking or drinking, or gambling for that matter, another age-regulated activity we generally recognize as safe and logical.

The government also regulates the flip-side of the vaccine equation: the drugs themselves. Unlike vitamins and dietary supplements that can be manufactured and distributed by anyone without conducting safety or quality testing, all drugs—including vaccines—must be clinically tested and proven safe before the FDA allows them to be sold and used on the general population. That's not to say any drugs come without risk or side effects, but those cases are low enough for the government to consider them safe for use under a physician's care.

How many parents of unvaccinated children give their unvaccinated kids a daily vitamin or treat their colds and ear infections with over-the-counter natural remedies that have never even been tested for safety or efficacy? If fears over health risks are the driving concern for avoiding vaccines, then opting for natural remedies is also counterintuitive, considering the FDA is forbidden from regulating those products, making safety a use-at-your-own-risk decision and the risks and side effects unknown.

Perhaps the biggest issue with vaccinations is that they have worked so well that we’ve forgotten what it is they actually do. We now live in a world without small pox or polio thanks to the efficacy of vaccinations. It’s easy to look at modern health—especially here in the U.S.—and think we’ve evolved out of deadly communicable diseases, making vaccines obsolete. And that does happen—we no longer get small pox vaccines because the disease is considered eradicated. But other diseases, such as measles and whooping cough, aren’t eradicated, and they can be deadly, particularly to small children.

One last consideration: The FDA's recent ban on trans fats. How many anti-vaccine parents applauded that measure in hopes that it will help to stem the rising levels of obesity and type 2 diabetes affecting millions of American children? Why should that move be praised when children still have access to other foods that contribute to poor health (sugars and refined flours, etc.)?

There are greater risks in not getting vaccines than there are in getting them. And when it comes down to it, that should be enough for any parent to feel safe and comfortable in not only protecting their own children, but also in protecting their communities. This is what living in society requires of all us--and does for us as a result.

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Vaccine image via Shutterstock 

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