The latest victims of the California measles outbreak are college students.
As of Feb. 3, students at three different public colleges were believed to have contracted measles. The outbreak of measles this year has been the most serious in years, pushing policy makers to reconsider how to contain and quell this disease that has been virtually eradicated since 2000, when effective and widespread vaccination immunized the majority of the public.
Making vaccine injection compulsory has become a hot topic among legislators, with politicians like N.J. Gov. and ex-officio University trustee Chris Christie drawing criticism for supporting parents’ choice to vaccinate. Given that 22 states do not require measles immunizations for college students, some universities are wondering if it is time for a policy change.
Following the current outbreak, California schools have plans to make the Measles, Mumps and Rubella vaccine a required immunization for incoming students by 2017. University policy currently mandates the MMR vaccine in accordance with New Jersey law, which allows for religious-based exemptions from vaccination.
Given the present incidence of measles, is the loophole in New Jersey law that allows parents and citizens to withhold from vaccination for non-medical reasons a point of potential concern?
This debate highlights the tension between private liberty and public good; in an institution with diverse citizens of various beliefs and backgrounds, we are reminded constantly to respect and tolerate other views, to learn to coexist. But what happens when these opinions threaten our personal health? Do we still remain devoted to freedom of opinion and religion, even when these doctrines endanger others?
As students at a private institution, our school’s greatest priority should be geared toward personal health. As university students we have the right to safety, the right to know that coexisting will not physically harm us.
For those who subscribe to the scientific evidence in favor of vaccine safety, mandating vaccination might seem like a no-brainer. Unvaccinated individuals threaten the health of larger communities, including those who cannot be vaccinated because they are too young, necessitate medical exemptions or have not maintained a sufficient immune response to deem them insusceptible to disease.
That said, mandating all community members to vaccinate, including those with deep religious or philosophical qualms, may be counterintuitive when trying to increase overall community vaccination rates. Instead of increasing vaccination, mandates can serve to outrage, animate and propel the anti-vaccine community. While allowing non-medical exemptions to vaccination pose serious threats to communities, enforcing compulsory vaccination may be even more destructive to public health. Compulsory vaccination laws have historically galvanized anti-vaccination movements, while efforts to educate the public on the benefits of vaccination while allowing non-medical exemptions proved more successful.
However, it still remains crucial that non-medical exemptions are extremely restricted.
Research has shown that states with loose exemption policies typically have more parents filing for non-medical exemptions and a higher incidence of vaccine-preventable disease. Obtaining non-medical exemptions must be harder than just signing a form. Effective policies should require citizens to thoroughly consider the consequences of not vaccinating, mandating multiple discussions with physicians and requiring a thorough, written explanation of reasons for avoiding vaccination. Additionally, exemptions ought to only be granted for a particular amount of time, and parents asked to reexamine their decision at regular and frequent intervals.
Although the measles remains a particularly urgent and prevalent concern to a community across the country and may not currently threaten the health of University students, New Jersey and University policy on vaccination still necessitates conversation and review.
Although vaccination is one of the most successful breakthroughs in the field of health, saving countless lives and reducing incidence of disease, the anti-vaccine movement has consistently grown in following thanks to the propagation of misinformation about vaccine safety and growing apathy towards vaccination. Because vaccines have become so effective, the consequences of disease are less tangible. In this sense, vaccines are a victim of their own success.
This is a crisis we must address as future lawmakers, citizens and parents, balancing principles of autonomy and government tolerance of various religious and philosophical beliefs; allowing room for private liberty while still ultimately emphasizing public health.
Julia Case-Levine is a freshman from New York, N.Y. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the severity of the current measles outbreak. It is the most serious outbreak in recent years, but nobody has died of the disease yet. The 'Prince' regrets the error.