The recent outbreak in measles cases has become a politically hot topic and brought to the forefront the problematic issue of balancing various rights. Politicians, especially in the Republican party, are having to dance around the issue to avoid stepping on the toes of their various bases of support and in the process have sometimes fallen flat on their faces. So as usual, they are trying to muddy the issue by blurring the lines between some fairly clear positions.
The most popular stance is to say that all children should be vaccinated without specifying how far they are willing to go to achieve that. Currently some states such as California allow children to attend school without being vaccinated either because of religious or philosophical beliefs. That ‘personal belief’ exemption has to be eliminated and I am glad to see that moves are under way to do so. The philosophical exemption may be easier to get rid of than the religious one because of the absurd belief that religious beliefs, however dangerous or crazy, must be given special status.
This is where the Republican party and some of its libertarian elements is getting divided. They do not want to alienate their religious base. They also do not want to cross those libertarians who think that individuals should have the right to opt out of vaccinations because only parents can make decisions about their children. And then of course there are the anti-government paranoids who think that anything the government proposes must be opposed on principle. The fact that president Obama has come out strongly in favor of vaccinations is likely to make these people even less likely to comply.
One position, and the one that I support, is that public health interests are paramount and that people should not have the right to undermine the health of the public based on their private beliefs. That means that the government should require that all children should be vaccinated, except those that have a valid medical reason not to. Does that mean that all children must be vaccinated, in that parents can be prosecuted if they don’t comply? A strong case can be made in favor of it because parents should not be allowed to put their own children at risk either. Just as much as they should not be allowed to deny their children life-saving medical treatment, they should not be allowed to risk their children getting diseases that can cause serious illness and even death when they can be easily prevented with the use of safe vaccines.
But it may not be necessary to go that far. If you make it a requirement that you need to be vaccinated in order to attend any school (public, private, or parochial), that would be sufficient to ensure compliance for all but the most ardent anti-vaxxer, whether they be religious or libertarian, who would now have to home-school their children. If those children are taken out of circulation, it may be possible to protect them and the public at large.
Catherine Thompson has been keeping track of this issue and has compiled a timeline of the rise of the false belief that the vaccines cause autism and the roles played by prominent people in fostering the myth. It should be noted that the anti-vaxxers fingered the substance thimerosal in the vaccines as the cause of autism. But that was removed in 2002 and the incidence of autism has continued to rise. But that fact has not deterred the true believers.
She has also compiled a list of the positions of the current crop of candidates who are vying for the presidency in 2016. This is changing rapidly as candidates seek to find ways to please all sides and failing, thus lurching from one position to the next, with Chris Christie and Rand Paul being the most prominent in their stumbles.
Even the people on Fox News are all over the map on this with some supporting vaccinations and the die-hard junk-science believers still holding out for parental choice. This means that Republican politicians have no clear guidance on what they should say and have to actually think about the issue, which I am sure must be a painful position to be in.
Even Ben Carson, whose positions are so extreme that he seems like a satirist, has come out in favor of vaccinations (I guess he couldn’t completely shake off his medical education) though, deciding he needed to placate his equally extremist followers, he then gratuitously added that he was concerned about unvaccinated children sneaking across the border and infecting American children, though the rates of vaccination in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador from where most of the undocumented children come from, are around 93%.
The recent outbreaks of infectious diseases have caused serious problems for those who reject science. It is one thing to pander to your religious base and suggest that the jury is still out on evolution or the age of the Earth or global warming, because there are no immediate consequences for going against a clear scientific consensus. But when it comes to vaccinations and public health, you cannot reject science without risking public health in a tangible way.