A Quick Note on the Ethics of Vaccine Denial

For some reason that completely eludes me, an unusually high number of people seem to have jumped on the anti-vaccine bandwagon.  I’m not going to say anything here about the safety and efficacy of vaccines since so many others have done a fantastic job of that, and I would end up doing little more than copying and pasting their posts.  For anyone unsure of the science behind vaccinations, I would strongly urge that you become a regular reader of http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/.  In short, vaccines both work and are safe.  This is especially important now as we are in the midst of a pandemic as a result of the H1N1 virus, the so-called “swine flu.”  The danger posed by this new version of H1N1 makes vaccinations all the more important at this time.

Let me do a very brief rundown of why vaccinations are more than a great idea.  Vaccinations have the potential to save numerous lives, including those of children.  Last week, the CDC says that there were 35 flu-related pediatric deaths reported.  Of those, 27 were confirmed to be cases of H1N1.  Seven others were not subtyped, so it is not known if these were H1N1, though it is possible.  Only one of those deaths is known to not be a case of H1N1.  Further, "Since April 2009, CDC has received reports of 234 laboratory-confirmed pediatric deaths:  198 due to 2009 H1N1, 35 pediatric deaths that were laboratory confirmed as influenza, but the flu virus subtype was not determined, and one pediatric death associated with a seasonal influenza virus” (http://www.cdc.gov/h1n1flu/update.htm).  (Please note that this link is updated with new information each week, so I cannot guarantee that the quote will appear past December 6.)  The point of all this is that children are dying from the flu, and overwhelmingly, the version that is killing them is the H1N1 strain.  As such, the need to vaccinate children against this more dangerous strain of the flu should be clear.

With the above in mind, the question now becomes what kind of damage is done by being an anti-vaxxer.  I’ve written before on here about the ethical element of belief.  In short, actions have moral consequences.*  Beliefs inform actions.  That is, you act in the ways you do because of a particular set of beliefs.  If it makes sense to say you should act in some way, then you need to have the appropriate beliefs that would give rise to such actions.  Clearly, then, you should believe certain things as well.  For brevity, let’s cash this out as saying you should only believe those things for which you have good reason.  Certainly in terms of medicine, I’m going to take it to be uncontroversial that “good reason” is evidence.  The case of anti-vaxxers makes it very clear why all of this matters.

If you go about telling people that vaccinations are dangerous, and that you have evidence this is the case, you are putting them at risk.  Perhaps worse, you are putting the children around them at risk as well.  As the numbers above show, this virus is killing many more children than the typical flu.  What the evidence also overwhelmingly shows is that vaccines are both safe and efficacious.  If you disagree, you had better have a lot of hard evidence and numbers, because, unless you do, that means that holding such beliefs is immoral.  And by hard evidence I don’t meant what Jenny McCarthy said, or what some guy claiming to be an infectious disease specialist on Fox News said.  I mean you had better have actual numbers and peer-reviewed studies that show those numbers are legitimate, because the evidence in favor of the safety and efficacy of vaccines is staggering. 

When you tell someone that they and their kids should avoid a potentially life-saving treatment on the basis of bad reason, you are putting children at risk.  You are doing something wrong.  You are doing something immoral.  If you believe things that would put you in a position to unnecessarily increase the risk to children’s lives, especially in such a dramatic fashion, you are doing something immoral.  I want this to get through as it seems so few people consider the consequences of what they’re doing.

I get the strong impression that people don’t get the full weight of what they’re doing here.  This is not a political issue.  This is not a time to worry about saving face because of your past stated beliefs.  This is not some kind of game.  People are dying over this.  Children are dying in greater numbers than usual.  Again, this virus is worse than the typical flu.  The numbers don’t lie.  Before you tell someone, even off-handedly, that vaccines are dangerous, that they cause autism, that they have mercury in them, or whatever other piece of garbage you’ve picked up off the street, think about what you’re doing.  Think about the consequences.  Check your facts.  Before you tell someone something that could put their child in the grave, make sure what you’re saying is right.  If you don’t, at least some of the responsibility for what happens to those children is on your shoulders.




*This is, of course, assuming you buy into there being some kind of morality.  I am not interested in the meta-ethical foundations of any particular system here.  As long as some moral system works, then what I’m saying follows.

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