There’s a measles outbreak in California, and some GOP politicians are sounding an uncertain note on vaccinations. This is obviously a contentious issue today as so many parents are opting out of mandatory vaccinations. Michael Gerson enters the fray with a column titled “Vaccines and what we owe to our neighbors.” He writes:
Whether hipsters or home-schoolers, parents who don’t vaccinate are free riders. Their children benefit from herd immunity without assuming the very small risk of adverse reaction to vaccination. It is a game that works — until too many play it.
Herd immunity requires about 90 percent vaccine coverage. Some children with highly vulnerable immune systems — say, those being treated for leukemia — can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons. When the number of non-medical exemptions from vaccination gets large enough, the child with leukemia becomes the most vulnerable to the spread of disease.
The government (in this case, state governments) has the responsibility to keep vaccination rates above 90 percent, which benefits everyone. This requires burdening the freedom of parents in a variety of ways — not putting them in jail if they refuse to vaccinate but instead denying them some public good (such as public education) and subjecting them to stigma (which they generally deserve). As the rate of vaccination goes lower, the level of coercion must increase — making exemptions more difficult and burdensome to secure (as California needs to do).
This issue is important in itself. It also demonstrates a point that is properly called “philosophic.” Vaccination is communitarianism in its purest, laboratory form. The choices of citizens are restricted for a clearly (even mathematically) defined social good.
Read the rest here.