[Editor's Note: This opinion essay is in response to our current Big Question, which we posed to experts with different viewpoints: "Where should society draw the line between requiring vaccinations for children and allowing parental freedom of choice?"]
Society has a right and at times an obligation to require children to be vaccinated. Vaccines are one of the most effective medical and public health interventions. They save lives and prevent suffering. The vast majority of parents in the United States fully vaccinate their children according to the recommended immunization schedule. These parents are making decisions so that the interests of their children and the interest of society are the same. There are no ethical tensions.
A strong scientific basis supports the recommended immunization schedule. The benefits of recommended vaccines are much bigger than the risks. However, a very small proportion of parents are ideologically opposed to vaccines. A slightly larger minority of parents do not believe that all of the recommended vaccines are in their child’s best interests.
Forgoing vaccinations creates risk to the child of contracting diseases. It also creates risk to communities and vulnerable groups of people who cannot be vaccinated because of their age or health status.
For example, many vaccines are not able to be given to newborns, such as the measles vaccine which is recommended at 12-15 months of age, leaving young children vulnerable. Many diseases are particularly dangerous for young children. There are also some children who can’t be vaccinated, such as pediatric cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy or radiation treatment. These children are at increased risk of serous complication or death.
Then there are people who are vaccinated but remain susceptible to disease because no vaccine is 100% effective. In the case of measles, two doses of vaccines protect 97% of people, leaving 3% still susceptible even after being fully vaccinated. All of these groups of people – too young, not eligible, and vaccinated but still susceptible – are dependent on almost everyone else to get vaccinated in order for them to be protected.
Sadly, even though measles has been largely controlled because most people get the very safe and very effective vaccine, we are now seeing dangerous new outbreaks because some parents are refusing vaccines for their children, especially in Europe. Children have died. Measles is only a plane ride away from American children.
There have been repeated measles outbreaks in the United States – such as the Disneyland outbreak and six outbreaks already this year – because of communities where too many parents refuse the vaccine and measles is brought over, often from Europe.
The public health benefits cannot be emphasized enough: Vaccines are not just about protecting your child. Vaccines protect other children and the entire community. Vaccine-preventable diseases (with the exception of tetanus) are spread from person to person. The decision of a parent to not vaccinate their child can endanger other children and vulnerable people.
Given these tensions between parental autonomy and the protective value of vaccines, the fundamental question remains: Should society require all children to submit to vaccinations? As a vaccine safety researcher for 20 years, I believe that the community benefit of vaccination can provide justification to limit parental autonomy.
In the United States, we see this balancing act though state requirements for vaccinations to enter school and the varying availability of non-medical exemptions to these laws. Mandatory vaccination in the United States are all state laws. All states require children entering school to receive vaccines and permit medical exemptions. There are a lot of differences between states regarding which vaccines are required, target populations (daycare, school entry, middle school, college), and existence and types of non-medical (religious or philosophical) exemptions that are permitted.
Amid recent measles outbreaks, for instance, California eliminated all non-medical exemptions, making it one of three states that only permit medical exemptions. The existence and enforcement of these school laws reflect broad public support for vaccines to protect the community from disease outbreaks.
I worry about how many kids must suffer, and even die, from diseases like measles until enough is enough. Such tragedies have no place in the modern era. All parents want to do right by their children. All parents deserve autonomy when it comes to decision-making. But when their choices confer serious risks to others, the buck should stop. Our nation would be better off—both medically and ethically—if we did not turn our backs on our most vulnerable individuals.
[Editor’s Note: Read the opposite viewpoint here.]