To be clear, I am a strong advocate for childhood immunization. I see no reason not to be. Immunizations have been one of the major success stories in medicine over the past century, and have been responsible for nearly eradicating a number of diseases. Polio, chicken pox, smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis are a few examples of diseases that were once common and once ravaged the American pediatric population, but have been nearly eliminated by immunizations. In addition, common bacteria like H. Flu and pneumococcus, which cause serious (even deadly) infections in children, have also been drastically diminished. Influenza is no longer the monster it used to be. And we are successfully reducing serious intestinal infections caused by Rotavirus, and decreasing the rates of Hepatitis. All of this has led to a healthier population. There is simply NO reason NOT to have your children immunized (the one exception being the new HPV vaccine, which I have problems with personally and is not considered a mandatory vaccine by the CDC).
I have run across some parents who have been reluctant to immunize their children, and some who outright refuse. To me, this amounts to neglect and endangerment. I've read the claims that immunizations are linked to autism, and they are flat out bogus. Let me be clear on this. There is NO, repeat NO, sound clinical evidence that childhood immunizations increase the risk of developing autism or any other mental or developmental disorder. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either grossly misinformed or outright dishonest. The studies have been done. These vaccines are safe. They save lives. The benefits far outweigh any risks that come with them. So I strongly disagree with any parent who refuses to immunize their children.
With that being said, today I ran across this article about Prince George County in the DC suburbs. They are having problems with about 2300 students who have failed to be immunized properly and whose parents refuse to do so, and since the children can't speak for themselves the government has decided to step in. As a result, these children are not allowed to attend public school until their records are up to date, and now the County prosecutor is threatening legal action against the parents, including a $50 a day fine and up to 10 days in jail for failing to comply. This leaves me in a dilemma. It is a rare occasion when I can't take a position on a particular issue, and so the reason for my post.
On one side, I strongly advocate immunization and, like I said, failing in this amount to neglect and endangerment. On the other, the conservative in me flinches at the notion of a government or judicial entity forcing parents, against their will, to inject their children with a foreign substance. Yes, it is safe. Yes, the benefit greatly outweighs the risk. But still, there is something inside me that wants to call this action far too authoritarian for America. Is it right for the gov't to force people to do this under the threat of imprisonment? Honestly, I don't know, and a strong case can be made for either side of the issue.
No matter how safe these vaccines are, there is always the risk (as with any foreign substance entering the body) of an allergic reaction. Granted, the risk is minimal, but sometimes these reactions can be serious. Would the gov't be liable if this were to occur? What if (again, very rare) a child actually dies from a severe allergic reaction?
I'm sure the Libertarians out there will be outraged and condemn the gov't for this action. They would say that the parents have the right to make the decision on behalf of their children, and accept the risk that comes along with it. The government should stay out of it. But that would ignore the public health issue here. These children are not protected from certain diseases and too many of these individuals in the community could pose the threat of triggering disease outbreaks. Recent outbreaks of mumps in the Midwest are an example. Is it right for parents to put other people at risk because they fail to properly immunize their children? Should they be held accountable?
Liberals will say, yes, the gov't should take action. After all, we take action on behalf of children who are victimized in the home in cases of abuse and neglect, why should this be different? I agree. But still, this is the government forcing parents to inject their children with a substance that they don't believe in. That's a difficult idea to accept, and it should be for any American.
If I sound like I'm waffling on this issue, that's because I am. I simply haven't decided where to stand on this issue. I was against governmental intervention in the Terry Schiavo case. I'm against legalized abortion. I'm against faith healing, especially when parents deny children needed medical care. Since I strongly favor protecting the innocent, I'm leaning towards siding with the government (gasp!) here with faith that it's in the best interest of the children and society, and hope that this doesn't become a template for forcing people to do other things against their will. I'm interested to see what my readers think.