The anti-vaccine movement has been around since, well, vaccines. But recently, the debate over whether or not to vaccinate has become a hot political topic with Republican presidential hopefuls talking about choice. Chris Christie and Rand Paul are saying things like: Parents should make the choice of whether or not to vaccinate their children.
This debate has received a lot of attention since anti-vaxxers started raising concerns about the rise of autism and other falsehoods regarding vaccines. It was really only a matter of time before politicians started pandering to a misinformed population, and considering the spending power of that population, it’s no mystery that it’s the Republicans and Libertarians who are doing the pandering (with Democrats still trying to ride the fence). Politics aside, the notion of choice is problematic for issues concerning public health and safety. Historically, choice is a luxury only afforded to the rich.
We’ve seen it time and time again in our society. Car seats are a good example. Before car seats were mandated for infants and young children, they were something only the rich could afford. Even now, car seats are expensive, but they are less expensive and many social programs provide car seats for free for parents who cannot afford them. Since car seats became mandatory, crash survival rates have increased. However, if car seats were to suddenly become a choice again, it’s the poor who would choose not to use car seats and publicly funded child safety programs disappear.
So it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that anti-vaxxers tend to be upper-middle class to rich Americans. Sadly, many of them are even college educated. Before vaccines were required prior to a child attending school, vaccines were something only accessible by the rich. Smallpox outbreaks, post-vaccine, plagued mainly the poor. Making vaccines mandatory impacted the poor the greatest. Vaccines became cheaper and more accessible. Government and community programs sought to help the poor become vaccinated. Then something amazing happened, viral infections like smallpox and polio were eradicated in the US!
If we make vaccines a choice, the poor will “choose” not to vaccinate because it’s the poor that can’t afford to go to the doctor (even under the Affordable Care Act), they are the least likely to receive preventative medical treatment (again due to lack of resources), it’s the poor that will be unable to seek medical help if they become sick with a preventable illness, and they will be the ones who spread the disease to others because time off is less possible for the struggling under-class.
There is more going on here than an unsubstantiated concern that vaccines cause autism. There is a public health risk that eradicated diseases can make a comeback, indeed measles has. But it’s also the time-old tradition of the rich complaining about choice at the expense of the poor.
Promoting choice and freedom of choice is core to our American values, and I will continue to argue in defense of choice but not at the expense of public health.