Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children claim they are exercising their personal choice. Yet, like drunk driving, it’s a choice that unwittingly puts others in harm’s way.
Drinking and driving is a choice—however, it’s an illegal choice because drunk drivers might kill themselves or, even worse, kill others who didn’t have a say in the matter. But at least I’ve never heard of any drunk drivers justifying their actions by arguing that people die in car accidents not involving alcohol, too.
That’s the anti-vaccine rationale some parents are using to justify bringing back potentially deadly diseases and putting their children and others at risk, including infants, the elderly, and people with immunodeficiencies or on chemotherapy. Where the analogy breaks down, of course, is that serious vaccination injuries are, according to the Government of Canada, “so rare in fact, that the risk cannot be accurately assessed.”
However, as revealed in a 2012 study, motor-vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 1-to 14-year-olds in Canada. In 2011, this amounted to 63 fatalities, 443 serious injuries, and 9,137 total injuries for children 14 and under. Yet, I’m betting these parents who refuse to vaccinate their children wouldn’t object to shuttling them around in cars.
Now, the concept of choice seems absurd when applied to drunk driving, but that’s exactly how anti-vaxxers defend their illogic. Their willfully misleading websites proclaim Your Child. Your Future. Your Choice and warn vaccine requirements are “a violation of sovereignty over one’s body and the right to free choice.”
But let’s look at where their “free choice” has led us.
Measles were effectively eliminated in Canada by 2002, and that was a good thing because it has a mortality rate of 1 to 2 per thousand in developed countries and 3 to 5 per thousand in developing countries. Prior to widespread vaccinations in 1980, the World Health Organization estimates measles caused 2.6 million deaths every year. By 2012, with 84 per cent of the world’s children vaccinated, that global number was reduced to 122,000—which is still 14 deaths every hour. Measles can also cause pneumonia, deafness, blindness and brain damage.
So far this year, there have been over 400 Canadian cases thanks to outbreaks in B.C., Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and P.E.I. That’s up from 83 in 2013 and 10 in 2012 (though there was a massive 725-case outbreak in Quebec in 2011). The vast majority of these new infections have taken place in the Fraser Valley, a region known as B.C.’s Bible Belt and which has traditionally low vaccination rates. The current outbreak began among a religious group called the Netherlands Reformed Congregation (whose pastor warned against vaccines) and spread through a local religious school. Fraser Health’s Dr. Lisa Mu told the Vancouver Sun, “My understanding is that this community feels that natural immunity is what God has intended and that vaccinations would interfere with that.” (Interestingly, the hippies on Vancouver’s North Shore outdo even the fundamentalists of the Fraser Valley, clocking the province’s lowest vaccination rate at 63.5 per cent. The area’s immunization and communicable disease coordinator Nicole Roy told CTV, “Definitely many of our parents are going the natural route and in some circumstances that’s okay. But when it comes to vaccines, there’s not a natural alternative to science.”)
About a 95 per cent vaccination rate is required to create herd immunity—which protects those who can’t be immunized for age or health reasons—and last year the UN rated Canada at 84 per cent (putting us at 28 out of 29 industrialized nations) with some areas falling below 50 per cent. And it’s not just bringing back measles. On April 1, an Ontario mother Facebooked a photo of her five-week-old daughter hooked up to a hospital respirator after contracting whooping cough, which is vaccine-preventable, but not for infants too young to receive the vaccine. “THIS IS WHY YOU IMMUNIZE YOUR CHILDREN!” she wrote. “If you are considering not immunizing your children, think first about the people you put at risk who CAN’T get the immunization.”
Her daughter could have died if they hadn’t taken her to the hospital in time. In 2010, during an outbreak in California, 10 infants weren’t so lucky. Right now, there’s an outbreak in southern Alberta, with 34 cases, thanks to the area’s low immunization rates. The last outbreak happened there in 2012, and killed one infant.
But, y’know, it’s about choice.
Which brings us to Manitoba massage therapist Kim Paul, who made that choice not to immunize her son and is ”furious” that local school officials won’t let him attend school because an older student may have contracted measles. “To me, it almost seems like a bullying situation, you know, get the needle! Get the needle! If you don’t get the needle you can’t go,” the she told CBC.
No, you’re not being bullied; you’re being stupid and contagious. As is your patron saint Jenny McCarthy, whose claims that vaccines cause autism (based on a discredited U.K. study) somehow became so influential that, just last week, Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews called her out as “outrageously irresponsible.”
On April 12, McCarthy attempted to backtrack in an Op/Ed in the Chicago Sun-Times claiming she’s not anti-vaccine at all, but simply “embarked on this quest not only for myself and my family, but for countless parents who shared my desire for knowledge that could lead to options and alternate schedules, but never to eliminate the vaccines.”
There are, of course, countless examples of her arguing just that. But McCarthy no longer matters—in an ironic twist, the anti-vaxxer movement she put a pretty face on has gone viral.
Google “vaccine” and there are countless quack sites filled with pseudoscientific claims intended to put the fear of God into anxious parents. I get why it works—nobody wants to risk putting their child in any danger, no matter how infinitesimal. (Except when it comes to driving, I guess.)
But we’ve passed the point of politeness when convincing arguments filled with peer-reviewed scientific studies can’t compete with unprovable anecdotes. A recent study actually confirmed that no amount of reason is going to convince anti-vaxxers.
So let me be clear: Refusing to vaccinate your kids is not a personal choice because it has a societal impact. We’re seeing it right now.
Maybe we can’t force people to vaccinate, just as we can’t force people to not drink and drive—but we can try to keep them off the road. So let’s apply the same logic here: No vaccinations, no public school. That’s already the case in Ontario (alongside New Brunswick and Manitoba) where the provincial government just strengthened the Immunization of School Pupils Act by adding three new vaccines. But the so-called “mandatory” policy still allows exemptions for religious, ethical, or philosophical reasons. And yet viruses don’t care about motivation and we shouldn’t, either. No more exemptions—if you don’t get the needle, you can’t go. I also think unvaccinated kids also should be kept out of parks-and-rec activities, pediatrician offices, walk-in clinics, and daycare.
Living in a civilized society requires certain obligations—you know, like not killing people and not stealing. And another crucial part of that social compact is not wantonly bringing back vaccine-preventable diseases. There’s simply no choice when it comes to saving children’s lives.