This month, the vaccine debate has been kicked back into the news cycle, which has been an ongoing debate stretching back as long as vaccines have been around. A recent measles outbreak in California turned Disneyland into a biological hazard and left infants exposed to the virus in a daycare in Santa Monica.
Speaking for many conservatives, New Jersey Governor and potential presidential front-runner, Chris Christie, who, a few weeks ago said, according to the Washington Post, that he supports vaccinations.
“I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide,” Christie said.
From a liberal standpoint, look to the administration of President Barack Obama. In a White House press conference on Feb. 3, press secretary Josh Earnest said, “He was clear that we don’t need a new law, we need people to exercise common sense.” Earnest said the President encourages all parents to vaccinate their children.
With both sides in agreement, who says bipartisanship is dead?
Parents are and have always been CEOs of families. Every day, their struggle involves making the best decisions for their children and family while simultaneously keeping the whole show running, which is no easy feat, as anyone with a toddler will attest to. When making any medical decisions, which can often have serious implications, parents take executive action in what they think is best for their children. If a parent is misinformed, or is informed but has a hesitation on the time frame that a medical procedure is to be carried out, isn’t it their job alone to make the executive decision for their child? The president believes we don’t need new laws, and Christie agrees.
Even stepping away from the information about the medical effects of vaccines, which have overwhelmingly shown that vaccines do not cause autism and are safe, the fundamental argument for mandatory vaccines is that some people believe that the government knows how to best raise your child and should make medical decisions for them. It is a position made out of fear of our own neighbors, who we believe cannot possibly be reasoned with to make the best decision for society and thus, must be forced to make the right choice.
It is an easy trap to fall in to. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that diseases like measles have made somewhat of a comeback in America since 2000, when the organization declared the virus eradicated. A study done by Pediatrics, a medical journal, found that the areas with the lowest vaccination rates were predominantly upper to middle class, white and liberal.
The lowest vaccination rate in California was in San Francisco’s East Bay area, in which 10.2 percent of all children were unvaccinated. Many of these parents unfortunately fall into believing debunked and outdated studies linking vaccines to autism. The problem of under-vaccination comes when parents exempt their children from the mandatory public school vaccination program for philosophical or religious reasons. The knee-jerk reaction to this type of information has brought hostility toward the parents. Their decision is seen as not only irresponsible, but a personal affront to the rest of society.
While that is to be acknowledged, the idea of forcing parents to vaccinate their children is like taking a sledgehammer when the situation calls for a scalpel. With such a pertinent and important issue such as public health, can Americans really afford to make this a polarizing issue? Should we force the hand of some parents, who are now a small minority, at the risk of emboldening negative sentiment against vaccines because of governmental heavy handedness in invading the personal lives and challenging the autonomy of a parent? Or does another way exist, one to combat misinformation and let Americans come to this important medical decision for their children on their own?
More than anything, we need to offer understanding and not demean when handling talks of vaccination. The rights of those who legitimately object to vaccinations on religious grounds must be protected as well. “Herd immunity” – the idea that if enough people are vaccinated, an outbreak is impossible – in theory, protects those who object just enough to hold back an outbreak. But that can only happen when vaccination levels are reached.
More than a mandatory program, other alternatives need to be explored and discussed to boost vaccination rates. Increased availability of vaccines and possible incentives for vaccinating are only a few alternatives to reach those goals.
While the kneejerk reaction to empower a central government when crisis arises seems alluring, it carries with it all the flaws and issues of liberty that comes with strong centralized power. The media firestorm has created a vitriolic environment around this issue. A better way to solve this problem exists, and it begins with a voluntary and open discussion, not a mandate and condemnation.
William Rickards can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org