The U.S. hit a terrible and entirely preventable milestone this week: Measles cases are at a 25-year high.
This alarming statistic is not due to changes in public health policy or medical practice, but the rise of the anti-vax movement. Researchers who study the beliefs of parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated have found they have both religious and political motivations.
As a bioethicist who investigates how cultural and societal values impact medical care, I consider the position of anti-vaxxers to be morally indefensible.
Here are three reasons why.
1. Failure to contribute to the public good
Public goods benefit everyone. Take the example of roads, clean drinking water or universal education. Public health – the health of the overall population as a result of society-wide policies and practices – also falls into this category.
Many ethicists argue that it is unfair to take advantage of such goods without doing one’s own part in contributing to them.
Years of research involving hundreds of thousands of people have proven vaccines to be safe and effective. One reason why they are so effective – to the point of complete eradication of certain diseases – is because of what scientists call “herd immunity.”
What this means is that once a certain percentage of a population becomes immunized against a disease through public health programs, it provides general protection for everyone. Even if a few people get sick, the disease won’t spread.
The way herd immunity works is that those who aren’t vaccinated automatically benefit from the group-level protection. This, I argue, is unfair. For if everyone acted in that way, herd immunity would disappear.
Indeed, this is exactly what happened in California, where measles made a comeback because so many parents chose not to vaccinate their children.
These parents not only failed in their duty to contribute to the public good, they also actively undermined it, hurting others and also costing the economy millions of dollars.