Massachusetts to require flu vaccines?

The entire universe in blog form
Sept. 17 2009 10:06 AM

Massachusetts to require flu vaccines?

My stance on vaccinations is well-documented here: I am not a medical doctor, so I can't dispense advice, but all the legit doctors I know recommend getting them. My whole family is fully vaccinated, as is The Little Astronomer who has also had her full series of Gardasil injections. Vaccinations are a triumph of medical science and have saved hundreds of millions of lives.

Having said that, I read that Massachusetts is considering mandating them for swine flu, and I'm honestly not sure how I feel about that. When it comes to personal freedom, I lean heavily toward libertarianism: it's my body and I get to decide what to do with it.

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Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies! Follow him on Twitter.

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However, what if what I decide affects others? If I don't use a seatbelt or motorcycle helmet, then I put an undue burden on others if I get injured. But where do you draw the line? If I smoke, doesn't that burden others as well? What about eating too much ice cream, or doing my own electrical repairs in the house?

Vaccines are incredibly safe, with minute risk of any illness or side effects. But if you vaccinate enough people, statistically speaking you will see side effects. What happens with those people if vaccinations are mandatory?

And the flip side, of course, is what happens if my kid gets pertussis because you didn't vaccinate your kid?

In my ideal world, people do the right thing for the right reasons, and that means they would all get vaccinated. Clearly, that world does not exist: when people like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and Meryl Dorey can stand up and say bald-faced untruths about vaccinations, it means kids will get sick, and some will die. Those voices, for good or for ill -- and it's for ill, bet on it -- have influence, and if states try to require vaccinations, it could give fuel to these antivax, antireality groups.

I don't have an answer here. I'm not sure there is one, outside of governments and the medical establishments taking the antivax threat seriously, and starting an information and education campaign. But I'm not sure requiring everyone to be vaccinated is the right way to go.