Denying Vaccines: Personal Choice or Public Health Threat?

Last year, 187 Americans contracted the measles, and in 2014 there have already been over 70 cases confirmed across the country. This is a disease which can be easily prevented through immunizations; which was thought to be eradicated in the U.S. in 2000.

As a mother-to-be, I was nervous to learn that children are not able to receive the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine until age one – thus making babies and toddlers particularly susceptible to the disease during an outbreak. Of the twenty current measles cases in New York, about half have been identified in children – seven of whom were too young to be vaccinated, and two of whom were not vaccinated following the wishes of their parents.

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Keep babies measles-free! (Photo credit: bess grant)

The resurgence of measles has caused public backlash towards “anti-vaxxers,” adults who have decided not to vaccinate their children due to personal beliefs and/or the unproven theory lauded by celebrity Jenny McCarthy that immunizations can lead to autism. A pediatrician writing under the pseudonym Russell Saunders authored a much-reposted and re-tweeted article decrying, “Vaccine-deniers are responsible to the resurgence of once-eliminated illnesses. Their movement is responsible for sickening people. They are to blame for the word ‘outbreak’ appearing in headlines from coast to coast.”

There is something to be said for a person’s right to choose whether or not to receive medical treatment. In my recent blog post, “The New Life Support Debate,” I argued that patients should be able to decide whether to accept or reject medical attention. It seems somewhat hypocritical to believe that patients have the right to deny care in some circumstances but not others.

However, in the case of the anti-vaxxers, their decision does not just affect themselves but can lead to a measles outbreak among children and babies who are too young to receive the proper immunization. And, the possible results of contracting measles are blindness, loss of hearing, pneumonia or death.

Thus begging the question – if one person’s decision to not immunize themselves or their child results in a public health catastrophe, is it still considered a “personal choice?” And, if not, where do we draw the line in requiring people to embrace preventive measures that will keep the greater public safe and healthy?

Please comment below and let us know your thoughts.

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I have extensive experience coordinating communications and outreach initiatives focused on health and social issues. In my current position as Project Specialist, I provide communications technical assistance to regional and federal efforts within the National Partnership for Action initiative, with support from the Office of Minority Health. I am a former Peace Corps volunteer who worked on health and social affairs projects in the Federated States of Micronesia. Read more.