Basu: With vaccinations, public health is more important than personal liberty


Pia Basu, Columnist

On Monday comedian Jimmy Kimmel weighed in on the childhood vaccination debate after he faced backlash on Twitter because of his earlier commentary on the subject. Kimmel stands firmly in favor of parents vaccinating their children and said he doesn’t think it is appropriate to present both sides of the argument “for the same reason (he) wouldn’t present both sides if a group of people decided that pancakes make you gay. They don’t. And there’s no point in discussing it.”

The issue is back in the spotlight after a measles outbreak revealed the disease is not wiped out in America, after 644 cases in 2014 and more than 170 cases in 2015. General scientific consensus says vaccinations for young children are the reason many infectious diseases have been eradicated in the United States. Vaccines have decreased infant mortality and increased life expectancies across the globe and revolutionized public health. Despite this, vaccination is a very sensitive topic, and I want to be clear: My intention is not to insult anyone with this article or question their parenting skills or personal beliefs and choices, but rather just to put forth my opinion on a public health issue I think is very important. I believe the safety and health of all children should be a priority.

Some people believe that vaccines are detrimental to their child’s health and could even increase their chances of being on the autism spectrum. Specifically, the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine is administered to children around the same time that signs of autism begin to appear, leading some to be concerned about the side effects of the vaccine. However, according to experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics, the MMR vaccine is not linked to the increases in the number of children on the autism spectrum. The British study that claimed the vaccine-autism link has been retracted because the data in it was deliberately falsified by the study’s author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who was stripped of his medical license. According to the CDC, most of the side effects of vaccines are mild compared to the illnesses they prevent.

It’s important to note that there isn’t a way for the federal government to control children’s vaccinations — power rests largely with the states, which generally follow guidelines by organizations such as the CDC. Even though states require a certain level of vaccination before a child enters the public school system, 48 states allow parents to be exempt from this rule due to religious beliefs, and 20 states allow parents to decline vaccines for their children for personal reasons.

Parents should not view vaccination as a personal choice but rather as a very public responsibility — their children deserve to be free of dangerous and potentially fatal diseases, and unvaccinated children put many other children and groups at risk, not only themselves. Those allergic to the ingredients in the vaccine, infants who are too young to be vaccinated, children who have not completed a vaccination sequence, pregnant women in some cases and cancer patients all depend on those around them to be vaccinated and disease-free because they cannot be vaccinated or have compromised immune systems. Most young children are not immune to diphtheria, whooping cough, polio, tetanus, hepatitis B or Hib disease, and any immunity given to them in the womb wears off within a few months, according to the CDC.

The more people who are vaccinated, the fewer opportunities a disease has to spread. If vaccination rates drop to low levels across the country, diseases could become as common as they were before vaccines. Also, diseases such as polio have been eradicated in the U.S. but not in other countries, so hypothetically if children in the U.S. are not vaccinated, they will become vulnerable to people who are just a plane ride away.

Americans shouldn’t be shamed or forced into making a decision, but they should be as well informed as possible and actively discouraged from seeking an exemption for their children. After the state of Washington passed a law requiring parents to get a doctor to sign off on an exemption, their exemption rate of 7.6 percent went down by more than 40 percent in just two years.

The goal should be the smallest number of vaccine exemptions as possible, and state legislatures should work to ensure that parents think deeply and consult with a physician before they make these decisions. The decision of whether or not to vaccinate a child should be seen as a matter of public health, not an intrusion on personal liberty.

Pia Basu is a Medill freshman. She can be reached at [email protected].  If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].