An obligation to act as a moral member of a community
Rev. Gerald D. Coleman, SS
SB 277, the California Vaccination Bill, was signed into law by Gov. Brown June 30. The law removes all exemptions to vaccine requirements for school entry except those medically indicated. In signing the bill, Brown wrote that "the science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases … Immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community."
While the law applies to students attending any public or private school in California, any child with a "medical contraindication" to receiving a vaccine can receive an exemption and becomes eligible to attend day care or school. This decision is left to the "judgment and sound discretion of the physician." Parents who choose not to vaccinate children for non-medical reasons would need to home-school their children.
Opposition to SB 277 has been significant and at times acrimonious. Californians for Vaccine Choice, for example, believe this law discriminates against parent rights to choose what is best for their children. While parental choice plays a large factor in the opposition, most of the concerns are grounded in worries about vaccine safety, despite the Institute of Medicine's affirmation that "benefits greatly outweigh the risks of vaccines."
Fears about vaccines fall into many categories:
• Dangerous side effects, e.g., diarrhea, allergic reaction, rash, fever. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, however, side effects from immunizations are almost always mild and go away within a few days. Serious reactions are very rare.
• Autism/Developmental Disorders: the only study that linked autism with vaccinations has been disproved and even found to be fraudulent.
• Vaccine Phobia/Vaccinophobia: 18 percent of Americans surveyed in a recent Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll said they believe that the standard measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) childhood vaccine shot causes autism, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.
• Mythology: some parents refuse immunization for their children because it is wrong to put anything foreign into one's body.
These fears come at a real cost to public health. Declines in vaccination rates have been tied to recent U.S. outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, potentially fatal diseases vaccinations were meant to prevent.
Two recent books "Deadly Choices" (Paul A. Offit) and "The Panic Virus" (Seth Mnookin) maintain that worries about vaccine safety rest on a vast array of worries, fears, misunderstandings, ideology and deeply flawed science that goes back for at least the last 100 years. Offit and Mnookin insist that the facts about the positive effects of vaccination on human health are as well confirmed and established as anything pertaining to health care.
Demonstrable examples include Smallpox which caused a minimum of 300 million deaths in the 20th century. It was the major cause of blindness. It was completely eliminated in 1979 thanks to vaccination.
In 1952, 57,628 cases of polio were reported. In that year, 3,145 people died and 21,269 were left with mild to disabling paralysis. In 1955 the first polio vaccine was introduced and the last case of endemic paralytic polio in the U.S. occurred in 1979.
A number of opponents to mandatory vaccination continue to cite the 1998 paper of Andrew J. Wakefield. In his "study," he claimed to show a link between the measles-mumps-rubella shot and autism. Since then, the study has been renounced as fraudulent by 10 of its 13 co-authors and the journal in which it was published. Wakefield continues to publish erroneous information about the dangers of vaccines.
The facts support vaccination, despite fears and irresponsible assertions from people like Wakefield. From a moral point of view, parents should feel a strong duty to protect their own children, and others as well. The facts demand responsible choice.
We all have an obligation to act as a moral member of a community and consequently have a strong ethical duty not to spread contagion. SB 277 is a good law.
(Sulpician Father Gerald D. Coleman is vice president for corporate ethics for the Daughters of Charity Health System and a lecturer in moral theology at Santa Clara University.)
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