Should vaccines be compulsory?

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
June 3 2009 11:51 AM

Should vaccines be compulsory?

I was asked in a recent interview if I thought parents should be mandated by law to vaccinate their children.

I hesitated, knowing this was a thorny topic. I said I wasn't sure, which was true. But I may be leaning toward a more definite answer now: yes.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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There is a fine line between creating laws that restrict freedoms versus helping others. You don't have the freedom to murder, of course, which is an extreme example. But what about mandatory vaccinations? Should you have the right to not vaccinate your kids?

We have seen cases lately -- far too many -- where ultrareligious parents have not sought medical attention for their children, and those children have been put at extreme risk and even died. I have no problem at all with having a court taking away those kids and giving them the medical attention they need to live. You have a right to believe whatever religion you want, up until that right interferes with the rights of others. And kids have the right to live.

You also have the right to believe in the antivaccinations movement's nonsense, even when they lie. But that right ends when kids' lives are at stake. And in this case, if we don't have enough people vaccinated against diseases like measles, pertussis, and polio, we will see a resurgence of them and kids will die. It's that simple. We have the evidence.

In the UK, the government is weighing compulsory vaccinations. I don't envy their Herculean task, nor the public outcry they'll have to endure. Steve Novella weighs in on this issue on Science Based Medicine, and as usual he is thoughtful, calm, rational, and makes a persuasive argument.

As Steve points out, using fear to get people to vaccinate may not be such a bad idea, because we should be scared. Logic isn't working (as I'm sure the comments to this post will verify), so maybe showing parents what happens to their children when they believe people like Jenny McCarthy is the best way to keep kids from dying.

And if you still buy into the utter nonsense of the antivax mouthpieces, then I urge you to read this heartbreaking article by author Roald Dahl, whose daughter died of complications from measles four decades ago. Sadly, the only thing that's changed since then is that the number of deaths from preventable diseases is now on the rise, not waning.

The bottom line here is that if you don't vaccinate your children, you're taking a big gamble where the stakes are disease and death... and you're gambling the lives of children everywhere at the same time. Compared to the risk of disease, vaccines are overwhelmingly safe.

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