Vaccinations Should Not Be Voluntary

Disneyland, USA // image: Ron Reiring
Disneyland, USA // image: Ron Reiring

As a role model of mine once famously said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

With this firmly in mind, it is time for the U.S. federal government to end personal and religious, not medical, exemptions to vaccinations.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the number of confirmed measles cases in the United States in 2013 was just over 200. In 2014, that number jumped to over 600. 2015’s numbers are already at over 100, most linked to the outbreak at Disneyland, but which are now spread across 14 different states.

14. Pretty good for a disease considered eliminated in this country since the year 2000.

It begs the question: Why are we allowing this to happen?

In part, because deafening public perception has a nasty habit of drowning out the quiet dignity of empirical evidence.

In 1998, an English doctor named Andrew Wakefield published a now-infamous study linking the MMR vaccine to the development of autism in children.

Since that paper was published, all of these things have happened:

  1. Dozens of studies attempted to replicate Dr. Wakefield’s findings, with no success.
  2. The Lancet, the journal which originally published Dr. Wakefield’s work, retracted the study, while the British Journal of Medicine called it “fraudulent.”
  3. British medical authorities revoked Dr. Wakefield’s medical license.
  4. The CDC, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics, among others, publicly state that there is no apparent correlation between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Despite all of this, a National Consumer League poll in early 2014 found that 1 in 3 parents in America continue to believe that the MMR vaccine can cause developmental disorders. Can we stop believing this, now? Can everyone just go ahead and agree that dozens of studies saying “no” trumps one study saying “yes”? (By the way, good science doesn’t say “yes.” It says “as far as we know, subject to further evidence.”)

According to a recent Public Health Report, cited in a CNN article, anti-vax parents are more likely to be white, wealthy, college educated, and privately insured. While this may sound counter-intuitive, consider that this group – middle-to-upper-class Democrats, and particularly females – tend to be more likely to buy into pseudoscientific fads, like juice cleanses, Paleo diets… vagina steaming…

I’m not sure if the public control of disease, or perhaps the relative luxuries afforded to this particular group, are responsible for the perception that they are somehow removed from the effects of these illnesses. Either way – they aren’t. Measles doesn’t respond to privilege – hell, if it did, Disneyland would be a sterile Mecca.

Public figures like Jenny McCarthy (seriously? This is who we’re turning to for medical advice?) have done a lot of damage to public perceptions, without a lot of science to back it up. Rand Paul’s recent interview with CNBC host Kelly Evans has been touted by some as a “blowout,” with many showing support for the “strong stand” he took by shushing a grown woman on national television, then spouting off claims amounting to little more than hear-say. (By the way, Paul is a doctor – an ophthalmologist.)

Paul says that he has “heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” When pressed for evidence, he declines to elaborate.

Take serious issue with this point in particular. When pressed for evidence, he declines to elaborate. This is not a scientific claim! This is not backed by anything but what the Senator has heard by word of mouth (if even that)! Otherwise, I heard that the world was ending in 2012! I heard Kim and Kanye are pregnant again! I heard my friend Jenny is sleeping with your cousin Tom who’s engaged to Mary’s friend Rachel who’s secretly gay!

Give me one concrete example, Senator, backed by observable evidence. One. Because at any given time I can point in an arbitrary direction and end up aiming at ten people who are living, breathing validation of vaccination efficacy.

Appearing on TV with “Senator” in front of your name does not make what you “heard” any more credible or true than what I heard yesterday around the water cooler. In fact, even identifying yourself as a doctor in this case borders on fradulent – your field of expertise has nothing to do with immunology.(Would you want a dentist treating your lung cancer? Same idea here.) And making claims on a national platform without anything but your own opinion to back it up is not only reckless and dangerous, it’s downright wrong.

Both Rand Paul and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie state that vaccination is an issue of “freedom.” Personally, I think they use this particular word because they know there is a large faction of people that will have a knee-jerk oppositional response to a perceived threat of losing it. This is, at best, an attempt to manipulate the emotions of the public, either by instilling fear or imitating solidarity. Do not let the fear of authority cloud sound judgment. Ask whether they vaccinated their own children.

The paradox of freedom is that it works the best, for the most people, within limitations. We tend to draw the line when the choice of one person infringes on the health and happiness of another. For example: We are free to purchase and bear arms, but we are certainly not free (although we are technically capable) to go firing these weapons upon whomever we please. That is a limit of our freedom. Most would generally agree that it is wrong to turn a deadly weapon on another without cause.

So why are we allowing people to do it with highly communicable diseases?

There are certain choices that we give up the ability to make without consequence when we decide to be citizens of a collective nation. We sacrifice these individual “freedoms” for the greater good, the perseverance of our society and our species. The choice not to vaccinate needs to be one of those freedoms. That’s not a socialist notion, nor a liberal one, and it is not The Man trying to Keep You Down. It is a reality of living in a herd.

There are exceptions. Allergies, pre-existing medical conditions, and other side-effects can qualify a child as being medically exempt from immunization requirements. These children are the reason that immunization needs to be mandatory for the rest of us. Herd immunity – we protect those who cannot be vaccinated by making the people around them immune to the disease. The fewer children vaccinated, the weaker the herd – the more susceptible we all are to biological warfare and epidemic.

Go ahead and do the juice cleanse – you aren’t hurting anyone, except maybe yourself. Same for the fad diets and the genital saunas and whatever other first-world crap the “most progressive” part of the nation is peddling as the next great cure-all. If you damage your own body, it’s not my business.

But it is not okay for the unfounded, unsupported, or straight up debunked popular perceptions of vaccines to interfere with public health and safety. Shoot yourself, but don’t you dare come near me with a loaded weapon.

What is the purpose of government, if not to maintain order? I may disagree with you on the specifics of what constitutes “order,” but in a broad sense, all of us rely on the government to keep us safe and healthy. And now it is time for them to end personal and religious exemptions to vaccination. Whether you like it or not – Marin County, I’m looking at you – you live in a country with 322 million other people, and you do have to play by the rules sometimes. You can’t shoot them, you can’t rob them, and you can’t infect them with deadly diseases. Especially when those diseases are preventable.

These are the ethical responsibilities of a citizen in our developed country. This point should be non-negotiable. You want to live here as Americans, with other Americans, this is the deal. Otherwise, take some advice from Skeeter – If you don’t like it, you can git out. TC mark

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