Mandatory Vaccination: A Necessary Step for True Public Health

People all the way up to the President have questioned the safety of vaccines, but it is time that we consider whether anyone should be allowed to opt out of immunization.

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By Saadat Rafin

Vaccination is an invaluable tool in fighting the spread of diseases. Illnesses that have crippled society and caused deaths are now stopped in their tracks by a simple injection. However, there are a select few Americans who disagree with this sentiment. These anti-vaxxers, while small in numbers, believe that vaccines are simply autism-causing time bombs that we have been indoctrinated to inject into our children. It is important to note that these claims have absolutely no scientific basis, but when President Donald Trump himself has fanned the flames of these conspiracy theories, fighting them becomes even more important.

The topic of vaccination has never been more relevant, as we currently find ourselves in the middle of a global pandemic. While there are hopes of antiviral treatment being effective in curing COVID-19, the true end to our current crisis will come only with a vaccine. If everyone is already immune from the coronavirus, potential outbreaks will be mitigated to a few cases. However, this only works as long as all Americans who can get the vaccine choose to receive it.

If we use the measles vaccine as a comparison for vaccination rates, the outlook is not good. As recently as 2015, nine percent of Americans believed that the measles vaccine was unsafe, and another seven percent were unsure about its safety. This means that upwards of 30 million Americans could opt out of a potential COVID-19 vaccine. If this meant that the virus would only spread between people who voluntarily skipped the vaccine, then this would simply be an issue of personal preference. However, there are many involuntary factors that may affect one's ability to become vaccinated. Almost all vaccines come with a list of people who cannot physically handle receiving treatment. Whether it’s due to age, a compromised immune system, or an allergy, there are already groups of people that are inherently vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases. They rely on herd immunity, and that simply won’t exist if a large number of Americans voluntarily abstain from vaccination. Furthermore, vaccine-preventable diseases are already wreaking havoc on America. 50,000 to 90,000 Americans die each year from these diseases, and that number would only go up if COVID-19 joined those diseases’ ranks. This virus is incredibly infectious, and we cannot afford to roll the dice with vaccination.

There is a clear way to solve this problem, and that is with a more stringent nationwide vaccine mandate. We already mandate several immunizations to enter schools, but 45 states allow religious and personal belief exemptions to this rule. These exemptions tend to be incredibly vague and allow far too many people to send unvaccinated children into our public and private schools. Furthermore, the exemptions leave room for people to get out of vaccination on simple falsehoods: if a community leader were to spread a conspiracy about vaccines, this could cause an entire region to have low vaccination rates. There is historical precedent for this, as outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases almost always cluster geographically. One key example of this was the 2017 outbreak of measles in Hennepin County, Minnesota. The disease was able to tear through the community as the vaccination rate among children under the age of two was as low as 54 percent. This happened with measles, which has a relatively low death rate. Even the most conservative estimates place the death rate of COVID-19 substantially higher than that of measles, and outbreaks of the disease could lead to even more tragedy than outbreaks of measles. If states removed all non-medical exemptions to vaccination, the risk of outbreaks for treatable diseases would drop significantly.

There are two ways we could instate this mandate. First, we could simply close the current loopholes for school entry and extend similar immunization requirements to more government services. If someone wants to receive a passport, a driver’s license, a state ID, or anything else issued by the government, they would need to get vaccinated. Of course, vaccines would need to become free for all Americans for this to take place. An even more aggressive strategy would be imposing fines and jail time on those who fail to get vaccinated for non-medical reasons. This would involve the creation of statewide or even a national vaccine registry, and those who skip vaccines would receive a warning to get vaccinated. Those who did not comply would face a hefty fine for each vaccine they missed, and there could be jail time for those who still refuse to get vaccinated. While the constitutional footing for the first option is much clearer, it still leaves far too many opportunities for people to get out of vaccination. Fines and jail time may seem intense for refusing a medical procedure, but the health of our nation depends on how many Americans are vaccinated. It is deeply irresponsible to leave any space for people to skip vaccines, and we need to take swift action to ensure that the health of the most vulnerable Americans is protected.

I am well aware that this mandate sounds rather dystopian, but it is necessary to protect our citizens. It is not fair to let Americans suffer because some people read that vaccines are unsafe on InfoWars. We all have the right to bodily autonomy, but we do not have the right to be vessels for preventable diseases. We know that vaccines are safe, and we should not create our laws around fringe conspiracy theories. Freedom to believe in lies should not come at the expense of human life, and our priorities need to reflect that. Vaccines aren’t fun. Your arms may swell, and you may bleed for a little bit. Nonetheless, personal comfort levels take a backseat to public health. The current American response to COVID-19 has been woefully inadequate, but we now have time to plan for a post-virus word. A vaccine mandate is a common-sense reform to protect everyone from easily preventable illnesses, and we should be ashamed of ourselves as a nation if we do not create one.