Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The Ethics of Not Vaccinating

The anti-vaccine movement has been in the news a lot lately. Well-known anti-vaccination advocate Jenny McCarthy started on television’s The View this week, measles outbreaks struck Texas and Wales and children are headed back to school; prompting parents to question vaccine schedules.

During a Season 10 episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the hypothetical scenario was a mother who decided not to vaccinate her child for measles based on rumors that the vaccine causes autism. The child contracts measles at age four and passes it on to a one-year old child at the daycare center who is too young for the vaccine. The baby dies in the episode with the title “Selfish.”

A paper in the Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics explores whether people can be held legally accountable for damage they cause by not vaccinating their children. Bioethicist Arthur L. Caplan is a co-author on the paper and states: “One can make a legitimate, state-sanctioned choice not to vaccinate, but that does not protect the person making the choice against the consequences of that choice for others.” The paper argues that a parent who decides not to vaccinate and endangers another child is clearly at fault and could be charged with criminally negligent homicide or sued for damages.

“Parents who choose not to vaccinate their kids for reasons of personal belief pose a serious danger to the public,” stated Jed Lipinski of the Albuquerque Journal. “Take the San Diego measles outbreak of 2008. After unknowingly contracting the disease on a trip to Switzerland, an unvaccinated 7-year old boy infected 11 other unvaccinated kids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”

“The majority of the cases occurred in kids whose parents had requested personal belief exemptions through the state of California,” Lipinski continues. “But three of the infected were either too young or medically unable to be vaccinated. And overall, 48 children too young to be vaccinated were quarantined, at an average cost to the family of $775 per child. The CDC noted that all 11 cases were ‘linked epidemiologically’ to the 7-year old boy and the outbreak response cost the public sector $10,376 per case.”

Caplan, Lipinski and others all agree that the government’s interest in protecting children from getting measles should trump parents’ interest in making medical decisions for their kids. Lipinski believes extra measures need to be taken to ensure non-vaccinators understand the risk they pose to other people’s children.

Vaccine Watch urges parents to seek answers to vaccine questions from their child’s pediatrician. As Caplan and Lipinski point out – choosing not to vaccinate your child can have much greater consequences than most parents realize.

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