The advent of vaccines has led to a dramatic rise in the quality of life in the 20th century. Vaccines have reduced morbidity of diptheria, mumps, polio, and several other diseases by over 99%. In the wake of such overwhelming success, many government policies have moved to make vaccines mandatory, but many libertarians and conservatives have argued that this infringes on the individual right to his or her body. However, I believe that mandatory vaccines may in fact protect rights.
When evaluating individual rights, the quote “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins” is important to consider. Does the right to choose whether or not to vaccinate harm other individuals? In the sense that you enable yourself to transmit disease to unvaccinated individuals, yes. But the act of not vaccinating could easily be considered a conscious choice to be more vulnerable to a disease.
The problem with this logic falls in the concept of “herd immunity”. “Herd immunity” is when such a large percentage of a population is immune to a disease that, even if one susceptible person becomes ill, the disease is unlikely to spread. For example, if 96% of a population has received a measles vaccine, when one individual gets measles, it is unlikely that they confer the disease to the other 4% of people, because the individual is surrounded by so many who are immune (This Romina Libster TED talk explains the concept well).
These individuals aren’t all free riders either. Vaccines are not 100% effective, they cannot be used on people of all ages, and some people are allergic to them. These individuals did not make a conscious choice to be vulnerable to a disease, and by one person choosing not to vaccinate, their “herd immunity” is weakened, significantly increasing their risk of becoming sick.
This has happened several times before, particularly after Andrew Wakefield’s false autism link. In 2014, a measles outbreak occurred in California, only 45% of measles cases occurred in unvaccinated individuals, and among those 12 were in infants too young to be vaccinated.
In defending mandatory vaccines, I have been asked if this same argument could be applied to justify gun control. While the data is conflicting depending how it’s looked at, even if there is a link between gun ownership and gun violence, I don’t believe that the increased risk associated with gun ownership is not grounds considering it a right infringement. With guns, the decision that puts others in harm’s way is not the decision to purchase, but the decision to fire. Furthermore, the decision to fire is already controlled by the illegality of assault, manslaughter, and murder, while the decision not to vaccinate cannot be controlled by anything other than laws mandating it.
Vaccines are one of the most important health advancements of the 20th century, but there are many people that they cannot directly protect. For this reason, it is critical that we prevent healthy adults from making a choice not to vaccinate.