Childhood vaccine debate a microcosm of our times

Measles, a disease that had been basically eradicated from this nation by 2000 thanks to childhood vaccinations, has now made a surprising reappearance, with the most recent outbreak traced back to California in Disneyland. The emergence of the disease has been made possible by significant numbers of parents who have refused to allow their children to be vaccinated out of fear that the vaccine would cause autism.

It's important to point out that the supposed link between autism and vaccinations is groundless, according to every major public-health and medical group. Its origins can be traced to a 1998 study in Great Britain claiming to have proved such a link, although that study was later withdrawn as a complete fabrication. The physician who authored that study was also stripped of his medical license, but given how such things go, that punishment is now cited by his defenders as an attempt to stifle the truth.**

Since then, the claim of a link between autism and vaccinations has itself become a virus of sorts, easily spread through a modern communications system and seemingly impossible to eradicate, infecting people all over the country. It offers a fascinating case study, raising basic questions about science, philosophy and morality, and the conflict that often exists between freedom of personal choice and social responsibility.

In Arizona, for example, one pediatrician recently pleaded with parents to get their children immunized. He has a three-year-old daughter, Maggie who suffers from leukemia and could be killed if she is accidentally exposed to the disease. At the time of the Disneyland outbreak, his family was at the amusement park during a three-week break from his daughter's chemotherapy regimen.

Another Arizona physician, a cardiologist named Jack Wolfson who opposes vaccination, publicly rejected that line of argument.

“It’s not my responsibility to inject my child with chemicals in order for [a child like Maggie] to be supposedly healthy," Wolfson argued on CNN.  "As far as I’m concerned, it’s very likely that her leukemia is from vaccinations in the first place.”

“I’m not going to sacrifice the well-being of my child. My child is pure,” he added. “It’s not my responsibility to be protecting their child." (see at 2:08 at video below.)

In the ensuing debate, two top contenders for the GOP presidential nomination, Chris Christie and Rand Paul, have come out in opposition to mandatory vaccination, although they were not nearly as callous about it as Wolfson. Christie cast it in terms of personal choice vs. public health, taking a very different position than he took in dealing with the Ebola controversy.

“The state doesn’t own your children,” Paul argued.  “Parents own the children. And it is an issue of freedom and public health.”

So there you have it:

1,) Do we, as human beings, have moral and legal obligations to each other, even to those whom we do not know and will never even meet? Or are we best served if we make decisions based solely on our own perceived self-interest, and allowing others to do the same?

2.) If such obligations to others do exist, is The Law an appropriate mechanism for forcing such obligations onto those who would otherwise not recognize them?

3.) At what point can something be said to be "proven" to the point that action is justified, especially in a highly contentious culture such as our own?  That question has become increasingly thorny now that the Internet provides a platform for seemingly reasoned arguments backed by evidence that we never landed on the moon, that Sept. 11 was a plot by the government, that global warming is a conspiracy among climate researchers, and that Barack Obama isn't a natural-born citizen?

Personally, I hate needles. It's probably a consequence of growing up as a military brat following my father to assignments all over the world. We were regularly inoculated against every disease for which a vaccine had been developed -- as I recall, the cholera shot was particularly painful -- and Uncle Sam did not make it a matter of choice.

But yes, childhood vaccinations should be mandatory.


** Like most Americans my age -- raised before measles vaccines -- I had the disease as a kid and of course survived. The tendency is to think that if tens of millions of us survived, it can't be that bad. But as the Centers for Disease Control points out, the fatality rate among children with measles is one or two out of a thousand. If three or four million children get it a year, as used to be the case, the math gets ugly pretty quickly.

It can also cause pneumonia, hearing loss and encephalitis (swelling of the brain) leading to mental retardation.