Vaccines: Public Health Threat vs Freedom of Religion and Freedom to Choose

Naomi Altman

In 1997 a British surgeon named Andrew Wakefield published an article in a prestigious medical journal, The Lancet, stating that the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) caused autism in British children. Following this claim, further studies of this hypothesis were conducted, all of which proved that there was no correlation between vaccines and an increased risk of autism. Nevertheless, the effects of Wakefield’s “research” are still prevalent to this day. There are many “anti-vaxxers” who forgo vaccinations, citing the risk of autism as one of the many reasons for their refusal to vaccinate. This article will explore two opposing views on vaccines and specifically the role of mandatory vaccination. 

Vaccines are known to prevent the spread of communicable diseases. The diseases that vaccines prevent against have serious consequences ranging from time away from school and work to neurologic compromise. Vaccines save people’s lives and thus people should be required to get them for the greater good of society. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a study demonstrating that childhood vaccines are 90%-99% effective in preventing diseases. Likewise, vaccines save 2.5 million children from preventable diseases every year according to Shot@Life, a United Nations Foundation partner organization. Some opponents have expressed concern that the ingredients (ie formaldehyde) used in vaccine preparation are harmful. However, the amount of these compounds used is too small to have any harmful activity

Vaccines not only protect a single person from becoming ill, they protect the “herd.” Herd immunity, or community immunity, is defined by the Center for Disease Control as “a situation in which a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease (through vaccination and/or prior illness) to make its spread from person to person unlikely.” Essentially, if everyone in a specific area was immunized, it would be possible to completely eradicate that disease. Due to prior global vaccination campaigns by the World Health Organization, smallpox (one of the most devastating diseases known to humanity) was eradicated, and children no longer need to be vaccinated against it because the disease no longer exists. Herd immunity also helps individuals who cannot safely receive immunizations due to a weakened immune system, such as patients who have recently undergone a stem cell transplant, because it prevents transmission of communicable illnesses throughout the community. 

Vaccines also benefit the economy. The Center For Disease Control estimated that the children vaccinated between 1994-2014 have saved the global economy $1.38 trillion, because vaccination prevented lost productivity due to disability and early death. Vaccination should, therefore, be compulsory, except for those who cannot medically receive a vaccine. Global immunization campaigns provide great societal benefits that transcend cultural boundaries, and provide benefits not just to the individual being immunized but also to those who are too ill to receive vaccines. 

Despite the many benefits, not everyone believes in mandatory vaccinations. Some people believe that immunizations cause significant damage, and thus people should be given the choice whether to receive vaccinations for themselves and their children. Many cite the potentially fatal side effects as a reason not to vaccinate, as about one out of every million children has an anaphylactic reaction (a life-threatening allergic reaction) due to vaccines. Furthermore, some believe that the government should not intervene in personal life and medical choices, and the parents and caregivers of children should be the sole people responsible for the decision of whether and when to vaccinate. Many who make this argument do so by arguing that requiring all people to get vaccinated infringes on constitutionally protected religious freedoms. There are members of several religions that oppose vaccines due to both traditional beliefs and practices, and skepticism of outside influence on their community. For instance, Ultra-Orthodox Jews do not vaccinate because of their religious beliefs and practices. Another religion that sometimes does not vaccinate is Islam. Some members of the Islamic faith will not allow themselves or their children to receive vaccinations because there is gelatin in some vaccines which may be made out of pig flesh

In addition to religious opposition, many oppose vaccines because they can contain ingredients that some consider immoral or unacceptable. Many vaccines like the HPV vaccine and flu vaccines are made using animal products like eggs, cells from insects and mammals, and gelatin. Because of those ingredients, some vegetarians and vegans oppose vaccines because it contradicts their beliefs. Others also oppose vaccines because some use human blood proteins from blood plasma (human albumin). 

Skepticism of the government has also contributed to the “anti-vax” movement, as some believe that the FDA and CDC (the organizations tasked with regulating vaccines) cannot not be trusted. There has been a concern that the FDA has allowed unsafe drugs on the market, perhaps due to pressure from pharmaceutical companies. One cited instance of this is Troglitazone, a diabetes drug that the FDA approved. However, due to toxicities (liver damage), the drug was pulled off the market in the UK and then withdrawn from the US market three years later. Americans were at risk of injury and even death. Thus, those who oppose mandatory vaccinations do so for a multitude of reasons such as the potential for harm, lack of trust of the regulatory bodies, spiritual beliefs, and adamant desire for the freedom of choice. 

While I believe that personal choice is important, I do not support the anti-vaxxers. The individual and societal benefits from appropriate, compulsory vaccination are substantial. I worry not only about the societal impact of decisions made not to vaccinate, but also about the impact on individuals. When people choose not to vaccinate their children, they are putting them directly in harm’s way by making them susceptible to otherwise preventable life-threatening diseases. While there are some nominal risks to receiving a vaccination, the risks of not vaccinating substantially outweigh the risks of vaccination.

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