THE PLANK JUNE 10, 2008
There's a piece in today's WaPo "Health" section about the growing number of "exempters," parents who choose not to immunize their children for non-medically based reasons of faith, philosophy, or fear.
With all due respect to these people's individual preferences, the public health implications of a growing cohort of unimmunized tots are ominous. Kids who aren't vaccinated pose a danger to other children--especially those too young to have had all their shots, those with allergies to certain shots, and those whose immune systems are too compromised to allow vaccination.
More troubling, exempters are currently shameless freeloaders, their children partially protected by the herd immunity built up thanks to the bulk of the populace getting its shots. But should the unimmunized group grow large enough in certain geographic pockets to destroy that herd immunity, look out.
Yet the movement to encourage parents to treat vaccinations as optional is growing, with the aid of Vaccine Liberation and various state groups promoting vaccination choice. Every state except West Virginia and Mississippi allows parents to skip immunizing their child for religious reasons. In recent years, 21 states established more general "personal belief" exemptions for kids whose parents say vaccines conflict with their views or values.
Now, I sympathize with the (scientifically suspect) fears about autism and the other potential side effects of vaccines. (As Chris will confirm, when it comes to our offspring, my capacity for crazy is limitless.) And while I don't share the beliefs of New Yorker Rita Palma--who's fighting to not get her third son his third hep B shot because she came to realize that vaccinations "are based on a very dark, threatening pessimistic principle" contrary to her belief that "good health is earned through seeking God"--I accept that we grant folks legal exemptions to do all kinds of nutty things in God's name.
In such cases, however, exempters need to keep their kids out of public schools. Period. Send them to parochial school. Home school them. Form a commune and hire someone to teach all the kids the fundamentals of Christian Science, agrarian socialism, or whatever blows your gown around. But if you choose to turn your child into a public health hazard, you also should be expected to minimize other kids' involuntary exposure to your little exemptions.
Alas, the trend seems to be headed in exactly the opposite direction. The Post notes that some states are pushing to make it even easier for parents to file exemptions. (Apparently, the hoops that exist in some places, such as "sincerity interviews" or notarized statements, are too arduous for some.) Because it's not enough that parents be allowed to opt-out of this public health safeguard; we must make the process so easy that even the laziest and least motivated among us can manage it.
Now there's good public health planning.