While there were so many other things going on last week, a hearing in the Senate on vaccinations drew little attention… far less than perhaps it should have.
A measles outbreak in the United States should be a headline from a bygone era, but we see it today amid a movement of parents to refuse vaccinations for their children. Often times, these parents cite long-debunked studies on the links between vaccines and autism.
As the Senate took testimony on the issue, Rand Paul – himself a medical professional – said in this hearing that mandating vaccines is itself antithetical to the idea of liberty.
One of the men who testified at the hearing, Saad Omer (described by The Post as “the William H. Foege chair in global health and a professor of global health, epidemiology and pediatrics at Emory University”) apparently took exception to Paul’s objection to mandated vaccinations, and he wrote the following piece, which appeared in The Washington Post: “Rand Paul is wrong: Vaccines are no threat to liberty.” The headline itself is a completely dishonest take on what Paul said, but it gets worse.
Paul said “persuasion” would be a better way to ensure vaccination than would mandates. And he paraphrased Ben Franklin: “I still don’t favor giving up on liberty for a false sense of security” — as if protection afforded by vaccines is merely a matter of perception. He didn’t ask any questions and yielded his time after his statement. Maybe the senator’s only goal was the flood of news coverage his remarks later received.
My perspective on Paul’s comments is shaped both by my research into public health, epidemiology and immunization, and by my experience as a naturalized U.S. citizen who immigrated here after spending most of my childhood living under a dictatorship. I don’t take questions of personal liberty lightly. But Paul is wrong.
Overall, U.S. vaccine mandates strike the right balance between personal freedom and public protection. These mandates work by changing the “balance of convenience” in favor of vaccination by putting bureaucratic hurdles in the way of opting out of them.
I can certainly understand Omer’s sentiments, but there is a major problem with leaning toward a government forcing you to do anything: Where does it stop?
That is Paul’s larger point when he quotes Benjamin Franklin. Yes, vaccines are vastly preferable to society as a whole and not just the children involved, but to force someone to take them, or to put so many hurdles in their way that they have virtually no choice but to take them, gives the government far more power over your life than it deserves.
We are told by many of these vaccine-resistant parents that “experts” have shown the links between vaccines and autism. People have gone to extraordinary lengths to promote these bad studies. One of the key proponents behind the modern anti-vaccination movement is Andrew Wakefield, who falsified data in order to show a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. He’s since been unlicensed in the UK for his fake study.
However, mandating vaccines is not going to solve this. In fact, when we say “outbreak” in the United States, we’re talking usually about 20-plus cases in an area – sometimes dozens more – and usually the result of one person traveling abroad in countries where outbreaks are occurring.
The CDC’s compiled data on this is telling. Many of the outbreaks over the last ten years are not just random city kids getting the measles. In 2014, there 667 reported cases of measles in the U.S. and the largest outbreak was 383 cases “primarily among unvaccinated Amish communities in Ohio.” It appears that this strain of measles originated from the Philippines, where a major outbreak was occurring at the time.
Several outbreaks in 2018 occurred in Orthodox Jewish communities. It’s not a violation of Jewish law to get vaccinated, but anti-vaccination fears have turned some rabbis and their congregations to believe that it is. That’s still a religious belief, though, and would be treated by doctors as such.
In other words, those outbreaks would have happened anyway – under Omer’s own stated policy.
In Minnesota in 2017, a “Somali-American community with poor vaccination coverage” saw a major outbreak. I wrote about that because it appeared the fear of vaccines among these Somali-Americans was influenced by anti-vaccination scare-mongers.
Are you going to go in and force Orthodox Jews and the Amish to get vaccines? By Omer’s own column you would grant exceptions for religious reasons. How about the Somali immigrant communities in Minnesota? Are you going to force them to take vaccines despite the fact that they know very little about the country they’ve just come to and have no idea what you’re putting in them with that needle?
Mandating vaccines in these scenarios is completely unjust. Mandating them even to people who have no religious or cultural barriers to them may seem like it makes sense, but it is just as problematic.
You know as well as I that once you give the government the power to determine what you must have, they will never relinquish it but often seek to expand that power. I am fully pro-vaccine, and I am horrified that there are “experts” out there willing to manipulate data to push this fear of vaccines on parents. But I refuse to concede that the government should have the power to force me to take any vaccination.
Rand Paul is absolutely correct in this, and the pushback he’s gotten for it is based on a bad premise.