Flu season is upon us. For most people that means a trip to the drugstore or the doctor's office and a week of dealing with irritating symptoms like a sore throat and runny nose. But the season also give us an opportunity to talk about vaccines and, specifically, why most Americans should be required to get them.
This is a highly controversial suggestion, no doubt. But vaccines prevent the spread of disease and save lives, and the arguments for requiring their use are far stronger than any excuse that may be made for avoiding them.
Let's start with the messiest part of this debate. Perhaps the best argument against mandatory vaccination is the libertarian notion that you own your body, and thus only you get to decide what to put in it. This argument is compelling in most cases. But it fails in this instance for several reasons.
First, inadvertently infecting someone else with a life-threatening virus is not a right, and it's awfully easy to do, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And though people who skip their vaccines don't intend to infect others, they do, and it happens very often. Mandatory vaccination is merely a way to protect individuals from harm and reduce the risk of a public health crisis, which leads to another important point.
The argument from freedom described above takes good health for granted. Indeed, the possibility of an infectious disease outbreak doesn't often occur to citizens of the developed world. According to science writers Alex Berezow and Hank Campbell in Science Left Behind, one of the primary reasons that mindset exists is because mass vaccination in the last 100 years has made infectious disease an afterthought for most of us. The most pressing health problems in America today are cancer, heart disease, and stroke; largely due to lifestyle choices like smoking and poor diet. And if somebody wants to subsist on a diet made up of french fries or smoke until their lungs cease to function, that's fine. Choice often entails risk, and people are free to risk their own health by eating poorly or smoking. But they shouldn't be free to risk other people's health.
Unfortunately, that's what anti-vaccine advocates are being allowed to do, as the issue stands. In November, Reason Magazine science correspondent Ronald Bailey reported that the number of children coming down with Pertussis, or Whooping Cough, reached 18,000 — the worst outbreak in 50 years. The epidemic was caused by parents who refused to vaccinate their children and the introduction of a vaccine over 10 years ago that is far less potent than its predecessor. The science journal Nature reported in October that Measles is making somewhat of comeback as a result of the same anti-vaccine paranoia, which is causing several states to make it harder for parents to exempt their children from immunization.
The only other possible justification for avoiding vaccination is the “scientific” argument that vaccines, or certain ingredients in them, are somehow harmful. Everybody laugh at that suggestion with me, will you? Let's look at the evidence. A massive epidemiological study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2002, involving over 500,000 children, found no link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and autism, the most well known but thoroughly debunked myth of vaccination. Several studies published in the medical literature in the last decade have reached the same conclusion. And there are dozens more where those came from.
But to get back to the heart of the matter, if the prospect of mandatory vaccination strikes you as oppressive, you're wrong. Perhaps unknown to many is the fact that America has already enacted a vaccine policy like this. The smallpox outbreak that started in 1898 was brought to an end by compulsory vaccinations, and America did not end up a police state as a result. As Dr. Scott Gottlieb pointed out last year in the Wall Street Journal, Congress passed a law requiring that the smallpox vaccine be tested for safety; the Supreme Court also weighed in, establishing some safeguards for individual liberty during public emergencies in 1905.
Of course, this shouldn't be seen as a sweeping requirement that Americans be injected with every concoction that Big Pharma creates. Sometimes there are legitimate questions about the effectiveness of certain vaccines, and a small percentage of the population doesn't react well to vaccination. In these rare instances, there's no reason to require vaccination. But for most of us, and in most cases, that's no excuse to skip vaccines.