Bishop Lecture in Bioethics: "Law, Ethics, and Public Health in the Vaccination Debates: Politics of the Measles Outbreak" (Keynote Address for the 2015 CBSSM Research Colloquium)
Abstract: The measles outbreak of early 2015 is symptomatic of a larger societal problem–the growing number of parents who decide against vaccinating their children. This failure is causing the resurgence of childhood diseases once eliminated from the United States.
falseThis presentation explores the legal and ethical landscape of vaccine exemptions. While all states require childhood vaccinations, they differ significantly in the types of religious and/or philosophical exemptions permitted, the rigor of the application process, and available review mechanisms. States with relaxed exemption policies disproportionately experience more outbreaks of vaccine-preventable disease.
Vaccine exemptions are an illustration of the “tragedy of the commons,” in which parents choose not to vaccinate their children, relying on the fact that other parents will vaccinate their children, thus providing community immunity. However, the net result of many individual decisions not to vaccinate is the collapse of herd immunity and thus an upsurge in preventable disease and death.
The failure to vaccinate puts others at risk, thus violating an important ethical principle. However, punishing individual parents could entrench political opposition to vaccine policy. The most ethical and effective solution is for state legislatures to tighten vaccination laws, making it more difficult to obtain non-medical exemptions.
Lawrence O. Gostin, J.D., LL.D. (Hon.) is University Professor, Georgetown University’s highest academic rank conferred by the University President. Prof. Gostin directs the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and is the Founding O’Neill Chair in Global Health Law. He is Professor of Medicine at Georgetown University, Professor of Public Health at the Johns Hopkins University, and Director of the Center for Law & the Public’s Health at Johns Hopkins and Georgetown Universities. Prof. Gostin is also the Director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center on Public Health Law & Human Rights.
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