By State Senator Daylin Leach
I have always been a civil-libertarian. I generally believe that people should be free to make their own decisions about how they live their lives, what books they read, who they marry and what they do with their bodies. However, in my opinion, an obvious exception to the right to bodily autonomy is the compelling need to protect public health. If there is a serious health threat, the state must have the right to require individuals to take steps to prevent the spread of disease and save lives. That is why I not only agree with the decision of all 50 states to require children to be vaccinated, I am further introducing legislation to end the philosophical and religious exemptions to that requirement in Pennsylvania.
The science of vaccinations is crystal clear, and the efficacy of vaccines is as well established as the theory of gravity. The measles vaccine was invented in the mid-sixties. Prior to that, 90 percent of American children contracted the disease. This translated into about 540,000 cases per year (including hundreds of deaths). Once the vaccine was widely available, that number fell to near zero. The same dramatic results were seen in polio, diphtheria, pertussis, hepatitis B, tetanus, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox. Even the flu vaccine, while not quite as effective as the others, has clearly saved thousands of lives.
It’s not just the lives of the recipient of the shot that are saved. Some people can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons. For example, a chemotherapy patient’s immune system is often too compromised to handle a vaccine. If your child is not immunized and as a result either contracts or becomes a carrier of an easily preventable disease, he or she also exposes other children who can’t be immunized to a potentially deadly disease.
Again, I acknowledge the visceral appeal of the argument, “it’s my child, so I should have the right to do what I want.” But as attractive as that notion is, it really doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when public health decisions are concerned. If your child had diabetes, and you denied her insulin, a caseworker would come to collect your child quite quickly. The same holds true if your child has cancer, and you deny him necessary treatments. We have the right to make most decisions for our child, but we do not have the right to deny him or her life-saving medical care, or to put other people’s sick children at risk.
No medicine is totally safe. Even over the counter medicines such as aspirin or cough syrup cause the occasional bad reaction. And sometimes a person can have a bad reaction to a vaccine, sometimes very bad. But these adverse reactions are extremely rare. The overwhelming majority of vaccine recipients suffer nothing more serious than some short-term pain at the injection site. But we can’t let the one-in-a-million catastrophic reaction cause us to allow easily preventable deadly diseases from gaining a new foothold on our children and in our society.
Over the years, the “religious” and “philosophical” exemptions to vaccine requirements have devolved into simple preferences not to have your children vaccinated. Thus, the law requiring vaccination has become no law at all, but merely a suggestion. Nothing needs to be shown or proven. Even if you belong to a church that is enthusiastically pro-vaccine, you can just say the magic words “religious exemption” and allow your children to remain unprotected. They no longer serve any purpose other than to allow those who have been persuaded by pseudo and junk-science to avoid protecting their children and protecting society.
We should obviously retain the medical exemption. However, the rising number of people who have not been immunized has resulted in outbreaks of once almost-eradicated maladies such as measles and pertussis. We cannot allow these deadly diseases to make a comeback when they are so easily preventable. That would be completely irrational and utterly tragic. We can and must do better.
Senator Daylin Leach represents the 17th Senatorial District, which includes parts of Montgomery County and Delaware County. For more information visit www.senatorleach.com/newsroom.