On Vaccines: When Private Choices Affect Public Health

Because this is a highly emotional issue, I am going to open with a disclaimer: What I write is not directed at those individuals or families who cannot vaccinate their children/be vaccinated themselves due to diagnosed medical conditions.

Measles killed some 2.6 million people each year before vaccination was widespread, according to the World Health Organization. Today, some 145,000 people die of measles each year—most of them because they lack access to the vaccine—and just a tiny fraction of them are in the United States, where the vaccine is readily available and widely used. ~http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/01/the-new-measles/384738/

Several years ago, my state outlawed public smoking. As a non-smoker concerned with the terrible health risks of second-hand smoke, I was thrilled. My family could now eat at restaurants, go bowling, and watch a live baseball game without our eyes watering, our throats burning, or coughing (and trying not to appear rude). I no longer had to worry that my and my babies’ health were exposed and harmed due to the personal choices of others. Many people however, did not share my enthusiasm and emotions ran high as a personal “freedom” was seen to be trampled and stolen by the government.

I don’t think smokers are evil people, but I have seen firsthand the awful effects of long-term smoking. Family members have suffered and died due to smoking or being around smokers. There is a large body of scientific evidence that shows smoking poisons and kills a body; nobody nowadays smokes for their health. Although it is an individual’s choice to smoke, they should not have the right to accost and put at risk other people with their decision. Smoke does not magically stay in a smoking section or in a bubble around the smoker. It seeps into clothing, clings to hair, and perfumes car fabric, it causes cancer, COPD, and death, irrespective of smoking status.

seatbeltsLast year, my city banned texting while driving because distracted drivers were having a lot of accidents. Those accidents typically didn’t just involve the texter-driver and a pole (which consequently is public/community property), but other people. Was the personal freedom of texting and using one’s cell phone the way they wanted being trampled and stolen? What about seatbelt requirements, speed limits, or drunk driving laws? How do anti-vaxxers feel about traffic lights, gun laws, or various school safety rules?

Laws are made to protect the health, safety, and well-being of the majority and those who cannot speak for themselves, from the private decisions and actions of a minority group who think only about themselves and their rights. Your personal freedom ends when your decisions impact the health, safety, and well-being of others. We live in a land of equal rights.

Just like tobacco smoke and bad driving, diseases do not magically stay in one place. Diseases are living, growing organisms that, like mold (another living, growing organism) are just looking for prime real estate. I like facts and history, and I know what many of the now-preventable communicable diseases used to do to people, especially children. More often than we’d like to think possible, a person would suffer a disability like paralysis (from Polio), blindness, deafness, etc. and even death.

Having a lost a baby from something that doctors and medicine could not fix, it astounds me that a growing number of people are choosing to risk their own kids’ health, long-term well-being, and even life to diseases that doctors and medicine had previously been able to diminish to such a point that new doctors and nurses have never even seen live cases of them until now.

Pride Comes Before the Fall

The gasping breath and distinctive sounds of whooping cough; the iron lungs and braces designed for children paralyzed by polio; and the devastating birth defects caused by rubella: To most Americans, these infectious scourges simultaneously inspire dread and represent obscure maladies of years past. Yet a little more than a century ago, the U.S. infant mortality rate was a staggering 20 percent, and the childhood mortality rate before age five was another disconcerting 20 percent. http://content.healthaffairs.org/content/24/3/611.full

Those who claim they do not vaccinate for the health of their children (see disclaimer above) believe lies based on misplaced fear and calculated, feel-good elitism. They have never experienced first-hand the results of these diseases and they are grossly underestimating them. They have never seen small babies struggling to breath, or tubes coming out of young children, or the emotional and financial hardships of mandated quarantine. They fear unlikely reactions to vaccines, without understanding the likely reactions of the diseases they prevent. They believe that vaccines make BigPharma tons of money and so balk on principle, but they do not consider the costs of doctors office bills, hospital fees, missed work, medicines, or the expense of a private hospital quarantine. And that’s without any complications.

You do not knowingly risk your child’s health and life from preventable, potential fatal diseases if you are concerned for their health. You do not knowingly risk the health, well-being, and life of unborn babies, infants too young to be vaccinated, other unvaccinated people (see disclaimer above), and even other vaccinated children, if you care for anyone besides yourself and your personal ideology that by now, has been debunked and decried countless times.

It isn’t for lack of education, it’s out of sheer pride and stubbornness, or what Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Miami Herald termed “Secret Knowledge“, that anti-vaxxers put so many others at risk, but not themselves. I am willing to bet the vast majority of those parents who choose not to vaccinate their kids, have already been vaccinated themselves. They are willing to put their babies at risk for something they are immune to.

Some objectors, including the local clergy, believed that the vaccine was “unchristian” because it came from an animal.[3] For other anti-vaccinators, their discontent with the smallpox vaccine reflected their general distrust in medicine and in Jenner’s ideas about disease spread. Suspicious of the vaccine’s efficacy, some skeptics alleged that smallpox resulted from decaying matter in the atmosphere.[4] Lastly, many people objected to vaccination because they believed it violated their personal liberty, a tension that worsened as the government developed mandatory vaccine policies. [3]

The Vaccination Act of 1853 ordered mandatory vaccination for infants up to 3 months old, and the Act of 1867 extended this age requirement to 14 years, adding penalties for vaccine refusal. The laws were met with immediate resistance from citizens who demanded the right to control their bodies and those of their children.[3] The Anti Vaccination League and the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League formed in response to the mandatory laws, and numerous anti-vaccination journals sprang up.[2]    HistoryofVaccines.org: History of Anti-Vaccination Movements

The arguments for and against vaccines have not changed in 200 years, but we can be more lenient with our forefathers and mothers. After all, vaccines were a new concept, and the first one involved not an injection, but deeply lancing the arm. Early vaccines were admittedly impure, but they still worked wonders. Today’s vaccines are most likely not 100% pure, but I don’t know of any useful substance that is. Aluminum, maybe?

iron lungs
Polio victims in iron lungs

I understand being leery of doctors: I have been misdiagnosed in ERs, spoken to condescendingly, been given numerous unnecessary tests, and watched my kids go through needless testing that I later regretted. You do have to learn to be your own advocate when it comes to your health. I understand being suspicious of government propaganda, and I may or may not have my own pet conspiracy theories (I’d tell you more, but then I’d have to kill you). I understand that watching your child go through getting vaccines may be more traumatic for the parents than it is for the kids who never remember them.

I also understand cult mindsets; how those in them trust no one else (except perhaps in emergencies) outside their own “enlightened” circle; how stubbornly they cling to misinformation until it is too late; how they arrogantly use other people to get their own elitist way. I understand the logical fallacies cultists adhere to, their belief that their faith in the system will save them and their children (ironically, this is what they condemn pro-vaxxers for, too). My faith in a faulty belief system didn’t save my child, and at some point a crises of reality will hit anti-vaxxers too. In the meantime, public policymakers would do well to keep the faulty faith of anti-vaxxers in mind.

Free-Loading is Anti-Community

“I’m angry,” Simon said. “I’ve been upset that someone else’s personal choice has impacted us so much.” In Alameda County, where Simon lives, nine infants were in quarantine as of Tuesday night because of the measles outbreak, a spokeswoman said. Simon said she hopes families who opt not to immunize their children realize the full impact of their decision. “Their choice endangered my child,” she said.

She points out that vaccine refusers rely on other people to protect their children. It’s called herd immunity. If the rest of the community is immune to disease, it helps keep the disease from spreading to those who are unvaccinated. “You’re basically relying on society but not giving back,” she said. http://wtkr.com/2015/01/28/mom-family-that-refused-measles-vaccine-put-my-baby-in-quarantine/

As I said in a previous article on freedom, a healthy community makes a healthier you, too. This cavalier attitude that no harm will come to my unvaccinated children because I am smarter than others, even though I rely on others to keep my kids healthy by making/allowing/expecting them to do to their kids what I am not willing to do to mine, is putting a lot of people in harm’s way.

I remember a mother of 10 who, although none of her children had been vaccinated, and who were all passing around Whooping Cough, brought them all to a Bible study consisting of my very pregnant self, a one-year-old, and several children. While Pertussis (Whooping Cough) is one of the first things kids are vaccinated against, it takes several boosters over the course of 18 months to ensure protection. In other words, this mom had exposed my unborn baby, the one-year-old, and potentially the other kids as well as the vaccinated adults who had small children.

None of her kids had seen a doctor, and she had twins under a year old. It was terrible to hear those tiny bodies struggle so hard to breathe! My husband and I edged towards the door and the other mom wasn’t far behind. Thankfully, nothing tragic resulted from that incident for anyone involved, but those babies and her other children suffered needlessly. Considering Whooping Cough is also known as “the 100 Day Cough”, this family (obviously not quarantining themselves) exposed an unknown number of other people over the course of their illness, with results I am not aware of.

The Closest Thing We Have to a Cure (For Now)

houseKids have so many illnesses they will endure throughout childhood, and even somewhat innocuous diseases can create serious, lifelong complications. For example, babies still die from things like the flu. I will never forget the young mother who came to a grief support group I attended for a few years. Her beautiful three-year-old boy had died suddenly of the H1N1 flu virus. With tears flowing down her cheeks, she begged all parents there in choked sobs to get themselves and their kids vaccinated. “I never thought it would happen to me”, she muttered with brimming eyes.

As much as I love the literature, I don’t want to relive the 1800s. My dad has a PhD in microbiology and has spent many, many years researching and studying the incredible rate of evolution of microbes. Here’s the thing: You decide to not vaccinate, and rely on the others in your community to do what you feel is beneath you and your own kids.

Meanwhile, the more outbreaks occur, the more people are exposed to these diseases. We will begin to see them mutate and to such an extent, that current vaccines eventually won’t do anyone any good. Already, doctors offices are encouraging older people or adults who work with kids, especially infants, to get booster shots for Whooping Cough(page 3). Illegal immigrants bringing in diseases because they have not been vaccinated and are under the radar exacerbate, and may even be the driving force behind new exposures. That is all the more reason to vaccinate your kids.

Anti-vaxxers have made a fatal error in thinking and behaving as if these diseases have been wiped out or that they can be controlled. They have not been eradicated; these are living organisms that change and grow, and they are just waiting for the opportunity to re-emerge.


Timeline of Diseases and Vaccines

HuffPost: Old-Time Diseases

Family that Refused Measles Vaccine Put My Baby in Quarantine

Thou Shalt Not Commit Logical Fallacies

Leonard Pitts Jr., Secret Knowledge

More Info:

DailyKos:Anti-vaccine Megachurch Hit with Measles Epidemic Now Offering Free Vaccinations

Penn and Teller’s Vaccine Message, video (Warning: Lots of swearing)

How Did the Anti-Vaccine Movement Begin? Video by CNN

HuffPost: Pediatricians “Fire” Unvaccinated Patients

NYTimes: Among the Anti-Vaxxers

Robbie J. Totten: Epidemics and U.S. Immigration Policy.pdf

John Stewart, Les Measlesrables, video (Warning: Lots of bleeped swearing)

Vaccination Rates among Immigrants are Legitimate Concern

Published by Loura Shares A Story

Loura Lawrence is a tireless, creative entrepreneur specializing in media, communications, and the arts. She holds a Liberal Arts degree in English with a background in photojournalism, and is passionate about education, public policy reform, and women's issues. www.RamblingSoapbox.com

8 thoughts on “On Vaccines: When Private Choices Affect Public Health

  1. Thank for such a well written article ! We have a one year old baby grandson with brain cancer ! He gets chemo every week – 6 hours though his infusion chest port ! Mom holds him – she sometimes gets sick in despair ! He’s made it to celebrate his first Year ! 🎂 Who puts him at Risk ! ? Who are those folks in the doctors waiting room ?? Can we go shopping ? Restaurant ? A elementary school in our area has nearly
    30 % non vaccinated children ! Only 20% of doctors restrict these ‘ patients ‘ from waiting rooms and ER’s ! A nice neighbor is HIV infected / my brother is a cancer patient —– who are these Selfish people who put themselves over all the community – who endanger the most vulnerable !! ? And, why does our state ( Minnesota ) allow for the so called philosophical exemption ?? Why !
    Thank you to all who are helping make the world safer for my baby grandson !!! Prayers to You ! 🙏


    1. Thank you, Jack! I am so sorry to hear about your grandson, but happy to know he has been able to celebrate his first birthday! I understand a little, what an emotional roller-coaster parenting (and grandparenting) such a special, precious child can be.

      In talking with anti-vaxxers and reading their comments, it seems as though they do not even realize that those like your grandson, neighbor, or brother exist. I remember a time when we could visit my grandma because of her cancer treatments and risk of minor colds/infections, how much more is the risk of being exposed to such a virus as Whopping Cough?

      I agree that local and state governments as well as doctors, need to respond to the outcry concerning the very real and very dangerous mindset of anti-vaxxers. You might consider looking into the online organization, “Voices for Vaccines”. This article was recently featured on their site, and they work hard to get the word out about the importance and safety of vaccines.


  2. Just above “The Closest Thing We Have to a Cure (For Now)”: * breathe, not breath

    That is the only criticism I really have for this piece. I know herd immunity works, and I am not opposed to a few who don’t trust medical industries to this extent, but it seems the numbers of those who refuse to vaccinate their children are growing to an extent the protection of herd immunity is no longer as assured. If this is so–at least–the mutation of pathogens like the measles, from which herd immunity would otherwise protect the non-vaccination parties, is at least correspondingly more dangerous to all of us, including those who do vaccinate their children. How far can we, in a democratic society, permit a demographic to refuse vaccination to grow before we must either enforce vaccination or isolate these people from the rest of us? If it threatens public safety, it can’t be permitted. That’s why we have a waiting period and background check on firearm ownership, license testing for driving cars, and years of schooling before licensing for people practicing medicine. We shouldn’t hold these things to a high standard for our own safety and posterity even as we neglect something as basic as preventing disease in a diverse and busy culture. At some point the personal freedom is forfeit so the society itself is not in danger, correct?


    1. Fixed! Thank you for pointing that out. Exactly what my husband said the other day-herd immunity only works if the whole herd participates! I agree with you, this should not be allowed. Do you think we can trust individual states to quickly enact laws to this end? Or does it need to go to the federal level, considering how often people travel between states. Germs don’t recognize state lines.


      1. Jurisdiction must be at the federal level (thanks to the the way the Supreme Court has applied the Interstate Commerce Clause with illegal narcotics enforcement, if nothing else). However, this stumbles into exactly the same potential despotism many of us are leery of from the U. S. federal government. It has already overstepped with regard to militias and the ATF. We also know application of medical law and FEMA can be easily abused if applied at the national level, just as the mandate in the Affordable Care Act is sure to be the precedent for much more tyrannical things if we don’t pay attention and stem dangers to republican institutions. History tells us how this ends. Vaccination as a mandate would only be the first step in what could end up as a modern eugenics program.

        Call me paranoid if you want. I would love to be wrong about such things, but that’s what I see being the end result so long as this Congress shows so little interest in the electorate’s well-being rather than its own.


        1. It occurred to me when re-reading your comment just now, that this might be a case of self-fulfilling prophecy. The same people so afraid of the government and medicine, etc. are pushing their neighbors to get the government to step in. “Fear is the mind killer”. If only responsibility would reign instead of fear.


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