Celebrating Our Nation’s Investment in Public Health and Vaccines
Jul 04, 2014

Independence-DayHansPetersenAs people across the nation are getting ready to celebrate Independence Day, I’m reminded of how grateful I am to live in a country that values freedom.  As a citizen of the United States, I’m encouraged to participate in our democracy, I’m granted various protections, and I benefit from our nation’s investment in public health.  While our democracy is far from perfect, I do believe that great efforts are made to keep Americans safe and healthy – despite the fact that some people would rather live recklessly and dangerously.

When looking back upon the history of our nation’s immunization policies, we get a glimpse of both the good and the bad.  In a recent op-ed in Politico entitled “How Congress Brought the Measles Back“, Sarah Despres explains how Congressional actions have negatively influenced public opinion regarding immunizations in a way that has continued to interfere with good public health practices.   On the flip side we also hear stories about people like Andy Marso, a passionate meningitis survivor who has been instrumental in advocating for state legislation that will help protect college students from a devastating disease that almost cost him his life.  The point is that while our democracy and our public health programs are far from perfect, we have the ability to exercise our voice in the legislation that governs our nation’s policies.

We won’t always agree on what’s best, but when the discussion turns to vaccine choice some people feel strongly that they should not be “forced” to vaccinate either themselves or their children.  They argue that such government requirements interfere with their individual freedoms. Admittedly, I get a bit upset when I read such statements.

While I believe vaccines are the best way to protect from dangerous and deadly diseases, I also believe that people should have a say about their medical choices.  However, to say that people are “forced” to vaccinate is grossly inaccurate.  By exaggerating this claim, vaccine refusers are simply trying to garner support from a larger audience who wish to oppose any government intervention in their lives, regardless of any benefit it may provide to the masses.  Unfortunately, they fail to realize how vital this protection has been and how much death and suffering has been avoided because of the policies they so vehemently oppose.

The truth is that we all have choices. 

In the United States, each state governs their own immunization policies.  Since the state is held accountable in maintaining the health and safety of its residents, immunization requirements play an important role in state public health plans. By requiring immunization, states are ensuring the greatest health benefit to the greatest number of citizens while also protecting those who are medically unable to be immunized.  Unfortunately, some people fail to recognize that an individual’s immunization decisions have a significant impact on the community as a whole.  Whether we like it or not, public health trumps individual preferences.

This is also why state vaccine requirements will always walk a fine line between protecting the public at large and maintaining the integrity of an individual’s rights.  States allow medical, religious and personal belief exemptions to immunizations to help ensure there is no breach of civil or human rights.  In a perfect world, these exemptions would accommodate the few people who have valid reasons for not vaccinating.  The problem we’re seeing today is that people are often making immunization decisions based on a culture of mistrust and misinformation, which is resulting in far more exemptions in certain areas than what experts consider safe for public health.

Consider, for example, current concerns expressed by several Senators in New Jersey.  As religious exemptions have increased five-fold since 2005-2006, there is concern that these exemptions have contributed to the growing number of disease outbreaks in the state.  In an effort to close the loopholes in the current legislation, several Senators have sponsored a new bill that would require clergy and doctors to confirm a family’s religious claims prior to allowing a religious exemption.  Their intent is not to eliminate valid religious exemptions, but rather to prevent non-devout people from wrongfully taking advantage of valid religious exemptions that are lawfully permitted in their state.

Often states make a compromise for allowing these vaccine exemptions by restricting  unvaccinated students from school in the event that there’s an outbreak of a disease than the student is not vaccinated for.  This policy not only protects the student from falling ill, but also helps ensure that the unvaccinated student doesn’t contribute to an ongoing outbreak.  New York happens to be one of the many states that have adopted this type of policy.  Not surprisingly, such laws are continually being challenged.  When an unvaccinated student was recently banned from school during an outbreak in New York, the family tried to sue the city for turning their child away and violating their right to practice their religion.  In the end, a federal judge drew upon a 109-year-old Supreme Court ruling that grants the state broad powers to intervene in public health matters, demonstrating yet again how public health concerns outweigh an individual’s objection to vaccines.

These cases are just a few examples of how states legislators work to protect our public health.  But despite these policies, it’s important to recognize that parents always retains a choice.  If they don’t want to vaccinate their child, no one will “force” them to.  They can either file for an exemption, (which is often easier than actually making arrangements to have your child appropriately immunized) or they can choose to refrain from sending their child to public school.  Of course, they have another option.  They can always move to another country.

That may sound harsh, but if people want to enjoy the freedoms of living in the United States, they should appreciate our nation’s investment in public health and they should, in my opinion, be willing to participate in it as well.  The beauty of our democracy is that we can each exercise our voice in the legislative process that governs these policies.  If you would like to stay informed of various immunization policies, you can sign up on the Get Involved page of the Vaccinate Your Baby website.  Once you enter your email address you can elect to receive important immunization alerts that pertain to your state or your area of interest.

As I venture out today to celebrate Independence Day with my husband, children and neighbors, I’m going to enjoy good food and wonderful company.  I’m not going to spend my day worrying that my kids are going to fall ill from a dangerous disease.  Instead, I’m going to be grateful that the majority of people in this country know enough to trust the scientific literature, value the advancements of modern medicine, and acknowledge that immunization benefits far outweigh any minor risks in preventing dangerous and deadly diseases.  I’m going to celebrate my love for this nation and invite you to do the same.

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