The Baby is about to have her first MMR (Measles Mumps and Rubella) vaccination. The Toddler had hers a little over a year ago. The Baby’s upcoming vaccination has prompted me to explain to the anti-vaccination movement why they make me so angry, and why I do not believe participation in childhood immunisation programmes should be the parents’ choice.
Of course, this subject can not be discussed without mentioning that study, the one that resulted in widespread panic about the MMR, reduced uptake of the vaccination, outbreaks of measles. The study, of course, claimed that there was a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism. To be completely clear, that study was completely discredited many years ago. The research was proven to be falsified, the doctor was struck off, and the paper was retracted. In the years since it was published, there have been multiple large studies worldwide that have shown there is no link between the MMR and autism. Yet the entirely incorrect belief that there is a link continues to be peddled by anti-vaxxers. In the years following publication of that paper, MMR vaccine uptake levels dropped dramatically in the UK. Having risen over the past few years, levels are now roughly back to those seen prior to the study, but remain lower than those recommended by the World Health Organisation. During the period of fallen vaccination rates, measles was declared endemic again in the UK. The anti-vaccination movement in both the UK and US remains vocal.
Before I tell you why I do not believe you should have a choice to refuse vaccination, I firstly have a question for anti-vaxxers. It is this: if you are so concerned about autism that you would refuse to vaccinate your children at the mere suggestion of a risk, why are you not concerned about what measles could do to your child? Actually, there is no need to answer. The answer, presumably, is that you don’t know what measles could do. Thanks to widespread vaccination, we have forgotten what full-blown measles is capable of. There were millions of cases of measles in the UK and US each year prior to vaccination programmes. It is still one of the, if not the, biggest causes of death from a vaccine-preventable illness in the world. It is highly infectious, infecting around 90% of non-immune people exposed to it. Severe complications, which can include brain damage, blindness and pneumonia, occur in around 30% of cases. The majority of measles deaths occur in children under five years of age. Non-immune pregnant women who contract measles risk miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth. Measles is an unpleasant, highly infectious, sometimes debilitating, potentially deadly disease. Yet, you, the anti-vaxxers, apparently decided it was preferable to an alleged small risk of autism.
So, here is the problem with the argument that it should be the parents’ choice whether their children are vaccinated. It is based on the fallacy that this decision only affects your child. It is based on a major misunderstanding of the purpose of mass immunisation programmes. It assumes that they are about individual immunity. They are not. They are about herd immunity. The point is not concern for the health of specific individuals, therefore the decision should not be made on an individual basis. These programmes do not work if they are allowed to be about individuals. The rise in measles outbreaks in Britain and America since the MMR scare are testament to that fact.
The point of mass immunisation programmes is to protect the community as a whole, thereby reducing pressure on health services, and ultimately eliminating serious illnesses. If a high enough percentage of the population is immune, the spread of the disease can be stopped. For highly infectious diseases such as measles, this herd immunity requires 90-95% vaccination rates. Below this, the disease will start to spread again. There will always be some people who cannot be vaccinated and are immuno-compromised, for example, babies too young to be vaccinated and cancer patients. They are protected by herd immunity. Illnesses can be effectively controlled, or even eradicated, by vaccinations and herd immunity. Measles was. It was.
So, no, participation in mass immunisation programmes should not be your individual choice. It is not about you. It should be civic duty, like numerous other regulations you are required to comply with for the good of society. Your ‘freedom’ to make this decision is not relevant. You lack individual freedom in many aspects of your life. Very few rights are absolute. Most are qualified, to allow for rules and regulation in society, to allow for the interplay between your rights and the rights of others. Nor do you have absolute control over decisions about your children. You are required to put your children in car seats. You cannot choose to put your child in the car without one because they are ‘your child and it only affects you’. You are required to have your children educated. If you refuse medical treatment your child is deemed to need, you can bet that the hospital will invoke the inherent jurisdiction of the courts to override your authority and force treatment in your child’s interests. This is not different. This is simply another aspect of life that has nothing to do with your individual beliefs; where the decision does not only impact on you, and therefore should not be yours to make.
On that point, why would you believe it should be yours to make? Your all important choice not to vaccinate your child could have put my children at risk for the year of their lives that they were too young to have the MMR. Where is my choice? Where is the choice of the parents of the child with leukaemia, whose only protection is herd immunity, and who will be desperately vulnerable if exposed to measles? It should be a requirement to vaccinate your children. Instead of lamenting your lack of choice (in being forced to accept the protection of your and other people’s children from potentially deadly illnesses, no less), you could consider how lucky you are. In many parts of the world, people have no choice about childhood vaccinations, either. They have no choice to receive them. They have no choice but to watch their children die from diseases we are able to prevent.
This is what I want to say to anti-vaxxers: your thinking represents the worst of egocentric, entitled, misguided, selfish behaviour. Childhood vaccination programmes, meanwhile, represent an amazing achievement in medical science, and they are not about you.
(If you still feel inclined to criticise vaccination programmes, may I suggest you look up smallpox. Just look it up. Look up the terrifying prognosis and infection statistics. The horrifying symptoms. How it was eradicated.)