According to the Oath of Hippocrates, physicians have the duty to advise their patients according to the best of their ability and judgment. In most cases, most physicians recommend vaccination, believing that for a particular patient, the benefit exceeds the risk. Patients or their parents, however, have the right to decline to follow their doctors' advice.
But with vaccination, government restricts this right. Every time there is a measles outbreak somewhere there is an outcry to restrict vaccine exemptions, to protect the public – and, just coincidentally, vaccine manufacturers.
Measles is extremely contagious, and with today's air travel, a patient incubating measles but not yet sick can arrive any time and cough virus particles all over Disneyland. Most patients recover fully, with robust lifelong immunity. But some get serious complications or die. Measles is two to four times worse than in pre-vaccination days because it affects more adults and infants. Mothers with only waning vaccine-induced immunity cannot give their babies the antibodies that once protected infants of naturally immunized mothers during their most vulnerable period.
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The public health or guilt-trip rationale is this: "My baby is immunosuppressed and can't get vaccinated. So, you must vaccinate your baby because if there's an outbreak, your unvaccinated baby might catch measles and give it to my baby, who might die." Of course, parents fear for their children, although the last measles death in the U.S. occurred in 2015.
This argument assumes that the risk of vaccine to healthy children doesn't exist – or doesn't matter. Worries are attributed to "antivax quacks," and the omniscient Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook is reportedly going to protect the public by suppressing information he judges to be "not credible." Public health people prevented the screening of the 2016 movie "Vaxxed: from Coverup to Catastrophe" in Phoenix. The film shows children with devastating neurologic damage and parents telling how their once-normal child changed dramatically just after getting a vaccine. But these are mere anecdotes; there is "overwhelming evidence" of safety, the experts assure us.
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Most children tolerate their vaccines well, but package inserts list an intimidating number of rare but serious events – that might or might not be caused by the vaccine. Moreover, according to the Cochrane Collaboration, "The design and reporting of safety outcomes in MMR vaccine studies, both pre- and post-marketing, are largely inadequate."
Safety studies are always limited. Terrible but rare complications might not show up in the limited number of study subjects, or might be delayed until after the study concludes. Chloramphenicol was a widely used antibiotic, until one in 50,000 patients got lethal aplastic anemia. And let us not forget thalidomide and the babies without limbs. One incentive to be cautious and avoid attempts to cover up adverse effects is the prospect of being sued. But vaccine manufacturers are immune from product liability. The only recourse for vaccine-injured patients is Vaccine Court, which has paid out $4 billion in damages. Two out of three claims are denied.
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But aren't the risks worth it? What if large numbers of parents start to refuse vaccination? Maybe there would be a huge outbreak, spreading like wildfire, causing thousands or millions of deaths. Shall we not pit the worst imaginable hypothetical scenario against an unknown number of vaccine adverse reactions? Is it not worth it to eradicate the scourge of measles?
The fact is that measles probably can't be eradicated, not with an imperfect vaccine. In Saudi Arabia, where vaccination rates were between 95 and 98 percent, there were 4,648 cases of measles in 2007 compared with 373 in 2005. The best we can do is probably to aim for disease control. A freedom-based approach – for example, seeking better vaccines, excellent diagnostic and contact-tracing tools and open communication – is more likely to lead to an optimal result than forcing the currently available vaccine on unwilling recipients.
Deciding what is best for individual patients is difficult, fraught with danger and full of uncertainties. Doctors may advise or patients may choose a course that turns out to be harmful. But if governmental authorities, imbued with a sense of infallibility, impose their will on everyone, the consequences of a bad choice affect millions.
Trading freedom – and free speech – for supposed security ultimately leads to a loss of both. And if government can dictate what you must inject into your own children, what limits can be placed on its power?