Vaccination and morality

Who has the moral high ground in the vaccination wars?

My initial response is that I do, “I” meaning the medical and public health fields—those of us who prevent disease, disability, and death.

But it’s much more complicated. Many anti-vaccine activists are “true believers”. They really believe that vaccines do more harm than good. But, without getting all Godwin, being a true believer doesn’t insulate one from moral responsibility.

Those of us who are professionals have made the evidence available. The science is clear—vaccination is a good thing, and more important, it is better than the alternative. True believers will never be convinced by something as simple as truth.

On the front lines, though, are individual parents. They make good or bad decisions based on available information, propaganda and otherwise. The anti-vaccination cults are very effective at communicating lies to these parents, interfering with their ability to make good decisions. It is the equivalent of telling people “water purification is bad. It interferes to our individual rights, and you shouldn’t do it. I keeps us from being exposed to vital immune boosters.” This leaves individuals wondering what to believe, and the often try to pick the “safest” choice.

In the case of vaccines, this often means that parents chose not to vaccinate. (I don’t have statistics on this, but the resurgence of vaccine-preventable illnesses points in this direction.)

Of course, the risk is terribly misunderstood, and the antivaxers can’t even keep their own stories straight. They say that the risk of vaccination is too high, and that it’s safe not to vaccinate because others will do it for you. Both of these ideas is false. The risk of vaccination is minimal, and is much lower than the risk of disease. And as vaccination rates have dropped, illnesses have resurged.

The antivaccination folks are morally repugnant. They encourage risky behavior without acknowledging that risk.

We of the medical community do acknowledge risk, but we look at the numbers and see that the benefits far outweigh them. We also have a system in place to help those who are injured, or who even think they are injured by vaccines.

Do the antivaxers have a fund set up for victims of pertussis? Polio? Measles?

Individual parents bear some moral responsibility in that they must be able to decide what sources of information are legitimate—is it their pediatrician, or an actress?

Finally, we in the health care community bear an awful moral burden. Yes, we’ve developed the interventions; yes, we’ve made them widely available. But we’ve failed to keep up the information battle. We no longer have adequate public education campaigns. We rely on individual doctors and a few advocacy organizations who have only the truth on their side.

It’s time to get to work, before we slide back into the dark ages of infectious diseases.


  1. Congratulations on taking up this important battle, PalMD. From things you have posted I’m pretty sure you are located in my general area and I’m pleased to have someone nearby with the will and the expertise to tackle this very important problem. I am old enough to remember the ravages of diseases like polio and I myself have problems stemming from measles. I remember drives to collect money to buy iron lungs for polio wards when I was young. I really don’t want to see that again. Someone with suitable resources might be able to do some good by putting together a web page or Flickr portfolio with relevant pictures from that era and promoting it heavily with, of course, copious explanatory material. Perhaps it would make the cost of antivax nuttery real to people.

  2. “Vaccination and Morality”? At first I thought it was a joke, but now I only wish it were so.

  3. D. C. Sessions

    You can, if you squint hard enough, make a moral (if not intelligent) argument for the “vaccines are bad for children and other living things” position.

    On the other hand, the “don’t worry about vaccinating, let someone else do it and you can count on herd immunity” set run right smack into Kant’s Categorical Imperative: you can judge the morality of a position by the results that would ensue if everyone did it.

    People who want to let others bear the costs of their own health (however calculated) are in effect demanding treatment as Special People. You know — the ones who drive single-occupant vehicles in the car pool lanes? The ones that have their very own red-painted-curb reserved parking spaces? Them.

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