Mandatory Measles Vaccination: Is It a Health Issue or a Civil Rights One?

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All 50 states require children to get some vaccines to attend public schools. Most states let parents opt out of these vaccines for religious or personal reasons. At least eight states are now trying to remove non-medical exemptions for the measles vaccine. Proponents say mandatory vaccinations would make communities safer for people with suppressed immune systems. But many parents think the government is overstepping its authority.

Today’s Guests:


The Civil Rights Concerns of Mandatory Vaccinations

In March, Rockland County, New York, announced a state of emergency and banned unvaccinated children under 18 from public places for 30 days. Several dozen parents challenged the order. The judge decided in favor of the parents, and the ban was lifted.

We spoke to civil rights lawyer Michael Sussman, who represented some of the families affected by the ban.

What are the civil rights concerns regarding the mandatory measles vaccination?

Michael H. Sussman: The principle concern for me is that there is a structure in New York state that was created to deal with outbreaks of what are understood to be contagious diseases. Rather than follow the structure that New York state provided, both the county executive of Rockland County and the mayor decided they would not follow that structure, but they would impose what amounts to be emergency declarations. Rule by executive order. Ruling by executive order is always dangerous. Here it curtailed people’s rights to go out of their homes; it curtailed healthy children’s rights to go to school for months on end. And doing that is simply a major human rights issue to me.

Religious Exemptions

In early April, New York lawmakers introduced a bill to remove religious exemptions amidst the measles outbreak.

Michael H. Sussman: First of all, he’s introducing it in a state of heightened anxiety. Legislation is never well made in states of heightened anxiety. There needs to be a very reasoned discussion as to why 47 or 48 states have these [religious exemptions] to begin with. There’s a desire in our country to recognize the diversity of religious belief and expression and, where possible, to accept that and tolerate that.

Michael H. Sussman: I don’t know why he’s doing this. The county did not follow state law. Had it followed state law and tried to implement state law and it found it wanting, then maybe you’d want to look at the exemptions. But that’s not what happened. State law says you can quarantine the people who have measles or those closely involved with them for a reasonable period of time until they get over that exposure and are no longer contagious. If that had been done at the outset, in my view, we wouldn’t have any real outbreak. It would have been resolved. Because they didn’t do what they were supposed to, now they’re looking to do away with religious exemptions, which really have nothing to do with the problem in the first place.

Are Vaccines Responsible for Lowered Death Rates?

For a medical point of view, we spoke to Dr. Philip Incao. He has been a doctor for over 50 years and started studying vaccines in the late 1970s.

Dr. Philip Incao: Vaccines are given credit for the fact that children today don’t die of infectious diseases like they did in the 1800s. In the 1800s the death rate from measles and scarlet fever and diphtheria and whooping cough was high. And then that came down. It came down very steeply. But when you look at all the data, the death rate came down before any vaccines were available. And the people that are advocating for vaccines never mention that. They always give vaccines the credit for the decline of the death rate.

Do you consider the measles outbreaks to be health emergencies?

Dr. Philip Incao: No, I don’t. In fact, before the vaccine was introduced, there were certain diseases, like typhoid and scarlet fever, where if children or adults got certain illnesses, then they had a quarantine law. And the quarantine law meant that, if you had this illness, you had to stay home until you’re not contagious anymore. So there were certain illnesses where they had that quarantine law. But measles was not one of them. They didn’t even bother to have a quarantine law for measles because they didn’t consider it to be dangerous or to be a problem. So it’s not a public health emergency. This is a hysterical exaggeration.

Informed Consent

Why do you support parents’ rights to informed consent?

Dr. Philip Incao: I can give you a practical example. In my practice, when I practiced in New York, I had some families with maybe three or four or even five children, and when the parents saw the effect of the vaccine on their oldest child, or maybe their oldest two children, they began to question that maybe the vaccines were not good for them. So they decided not to vaccinate the rest of their children. As these children grew up, the unvaccinated ones were always–and I saw these families in my office–the unvaccinated kids of the same parents were always healthier and much more robust and had no allergies, no chronic problems, they were always healthier than their siblings who had been vaccinated.

Dr. Philip Incao: They should allow an exemption for people because this is part of our democratic freedoms. We should be free to choose the medical care. And if we don’t choose to vaccinate, then we should be allowed to make that choice for ethical reasons, religious reasons, or medical reasons.

What About Protecting People with Vulnerable Health?

What would you say to parents who are worried their children will get sick from an unvaccinated child?

Dr. Philip Incao: First of all, if the vaccine works, if a child is vaccinated, it should protect them from illness. So why would they have to worry about an unvaccinated kid? And there’s no evidence that unvaccinated children are a danger to anyone, really.

What about parents whose children can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons?

Dr. Philip Incao: These are the immune compromised children. A lot of those children can also get sick from a vaccinated child. It’s not just the unvaccinated ones. If a child has a weak immune system, for whatever reason, sure, they can get sick. The percentage of children that are unvaccinated is so low, and it’s not a practical problem. It’s really a theoretical problem. There are a lot of children that are totally vaccinated, but they still get sick with other things because vaccination doesn’t stop all illnesses, it only stops certain illnesses. There are many viral and bacterial illnesses that there’s no vaccine for them. So the immune compromised children are still going to be vulnerable to diseases for which no vaccine exists. It’s a problem that you can’t really solve. You have to do the best you can to make your child healthy so they don’t get sick.

Press play to listen. Do you think states should remove religious and personal vaccine exemptions? Let us know in the comments below.