Controversy seems always to surround the issue of vaccinations, as parents have expressed their concerns about the effects of having their children inoculated. This was the case with the first vaccine to combat smallpox in 1796, and continues today with concerns being expressed about vaccines having the potential of weakening immune systems or even the effects of having numerous inoculations during the first two years of life (Bronfin, 2008). In defense of vaccinations, the medical community has attempted to convince the public on the safety and efficacy of child inoculations, as well as the potential risks to the health of children as a result of parents refusing to have their young ones inoculated. When considering the wellbeing of children, do the risks concerning vaccines, both real and imagined, outweigh their benefits; or is this an instance where concerns about public health are primary to those of parents? The answer to the question, at least in the state of California, appears to weigh on the side of public health, when a serious outbreak of measles that had first began in Disneyland spread throughout the United States, Mexico and Canada. In response, California passed legislation making vaccinations mandatory and forbidding parents to opt out due to religious or personal reasons (Karlamangla, 2017). In turn, this has set up a contentious debate between those opposed to mandatory vaccinations against groups in favor of them.
Safety is most often cited by opponents to mandatory vaccinations. This concern partially stems from a 1998 study published in the journal The Lancet that reported a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which has since been debunked by science and retracted by the publication (Vidula, 2010). Despite efforts to assuage parents and others who are opposed to mandatory vaccinations, it appears that one concern often leads to another. Prior to the alleged risk of autism, parents often complained of the potential side-effects and might cause some children to become predisposed to Type 1 diabetes.
Arguments opposed to mandatory vaccinations based on the autism issue differed, because it spread rapidly among parent groups and others opposed to vaccinations in general. In this case, if it wasn’t the MMR vaccine that placed children at risk then it was the thimerosal, a mercury-based compound used as a preservative in several vaccines, including MMR (Vidula, 2010). Others opposed to mandatory vaccinations argue based upon religious grounds, doing so by deferring to the 1st Amendment to the Constitution and the freedom to practice their religious beliefs. Still, others argue that because most children receive inoculations, those who are not vaccinated reap the same benefit of being protected from disease. This argument is referred to as “herd immunity,” a concept that some parents have come to accept as a valid form of protection against disease and therefore there is no need to force their children to be vaccinated (Vidula, 2010).
The primary reason that proponents favor mandatory vaccinations is that they are necessary to maintain, and protect, public health. They point to the efficacy of the poliomyelitis vaccine developed in the 1950s and responsible for a virtual eradication of polio, a disease responsible for crippling millions of lives around the world (Vidula, 2010). Proponents also cite the eradication of smallpox, as well as the virtual eradication of diphtheria and pertussis in the US, and attribute these successes to government mandated vaccination policies. What opponents may use to counter arguments based upon religious beliefs or even so-called herd immunity is that mandatory vaccinations not only benefit the individual but also those around them. This notion goes to the heart of the public health issue, where vaccinations are not only beneficial for individual children receiving vaccinations but are also responsible for preventing diseases from spreading. While this may seem similar to the herd immunity argument, the truth is that children who are not inoculated place those who are at risk. A prime example of this occurred in 1987, when a measles outbreak at a Colorado school resulted from unvaccinated children who infected slightly more than 10 percent of the student population who had been vaccinated (Vidula, 2010). Lastly, proponents argue that mandatory vaccination is the best defense against disease outbreaks from occur in future generations. If no such policies existed and parents could opt out of vaccinating their children, then diseases that have been virtually eliminated or even eradicated would stage comebacks that, in turn, would result in epidemics (Vidula, 2010).
While it is quite understandable that parents only wish to protect their children from the perceived harms caused by vaccination, it is somewhat baffling that they would continue to oppose vaccinations regardless of the scientific evidence concerning supporting their overall safety. However, whatever risks that may exist are far outweighed by the need to protect and maintain public health. Measles outbreaks tend to begin in areas where large groups of parents refuse to have their children inoculated (Vidula, 2010). Public health educators at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health developed a computer programs that demonstrates what is likely to happen in two measles scenarios where there are vaccination rates of 80 percent and 95 percent. User of the program can input their city and state, and in the case of the 80 percent scenario it is reported to not only be striking, but absolutely frightening as well (Carroll, 2015). Regardless of the scientific evidence that proves the relative safety and efficacy of vaccines, some of which was explored in this exercise, there remain many who are not convinced. In a poll taken on the website for the news program “Today” visitors were asked if mandatory vaccination programs were fair. Of the 16,000 votes cast, 64 percent argued that they were unfair, and that parent should retain the authority over whether their children should be vaccinated (Carroll, 2015).
- Bronfin, D. R. (2008). Childhood immunization controversies: What are parents asking? The Ochsner Journal, 8, 151–156. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3096324/
- Carroll, C. (2015, June 30). Should vaccines be mandatory? New California law sparks debate. Retrieved from http://www.today.com/health/should-vaccines-be-mandatory-new-california-law-sparks-debate-t29441
- Karlamangla, S. (2017, January 21). Measles outbreak grows in L.A.’s Orthodox Jewish community despite California’s strict new vaccination law. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/california/la-me-ln-measles-20170120-story.html
- Vidula, M. (2010). Individual rights vs. public health: The vaccination debate. Retrieved from http://web.mit.edu/angles/2010_Mahesh_Vidula.html