Opinion

Why, in 2015, are we debating about vaccination?

Rand Paul said a curious thing when asked, in reference to the measles outbreak across 14 states, if government should require parents to vaccinate their children. The libertarian-oriented Republican senator from Kentucky could have been expected to say, as he did, that government should not. But his reasoning took the philosophy of less regulation and more personal freedom to a whole other level.

“States don’t own the children,” declared Paul, who is considering a run for president. “Parents own the children.”

No, we don’t own our children. From slavery to child sexual abuse, the notion of owning another human has led to nothing good.

Legally, we’re responsible for our kids and their care, feeding and safety until they’re old enough to take care of themselves. But they are autonomous human beings, which is why, unlike property, there are laws and standards governing what we can and can’t do to them culled not just from individual whims and wishes, but from knowledge of child development, mental and physical health and education.

Children have died, for example, because their parents refused to give them medicines or let them be operated on. Shouldn’t the state have a role to play when parents defer to a religious belief that only God can cure illnesses? Don’t states have a legitimate right to intervene when parents abuse their children in the name of discipline or don’t provide them an education?

If it were left to parents exclusively whether or not to vaccinate their children before sending them to school, there would be risks not just to their child but to the whole school. The measles outbreak that began at California’s Disneyland has already infected more than 100 people, and that includes kids too young to be vaccinated. Amusement parks have no way to protect their visitors since someone can be infected with measles before visible marks appear.

That’s why vaccinating kids is an important public health measure.

Have we forgotten what a welcome relief it was when the measles vaccine appeared on the scene and measles were considered to be eradicated in 2000? Now with parents opting out of vaccinating, measles are making a comeback. There were 644 cases last year, spanning more than half the states. Some parents refuse vaccinations for religious reasons. Some are still responding to a fear created years ago by a since discredited and withdrawn study claiming a link between vaccines and autism. Even discredited theories can still be found lurking on the Internet.

And when you inject politics into the debate, especially approaching election times, it generates other confusion. Thanks to an unusual convergence of forces, something as basic and essential to the public health has become fraught with controversy, just as the common standards essential to educational outcomes have been. In this intensely partisan political climate, we seem unable to talk calmly about the medical evidence, the history, and the statistical risks either way. Even settled issues involving health, education and public welfare are reopened as political controversies, from opting out of shots to opting out of school in favor of home-schooling.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie who, like Paul, is expected to run for president, found himself backtracking Monday after he told reporters in England that he and his wife had vaccinated their children and considered that important for public health. But, he added, “I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that’s the balance that the government has to decide.” That came after President Obama on television had urged parents to get their children vaccinated, a statement that at other times would not seem bold or controversial.

Christie’s spokesman issued a statement saying, “To be clear: the governor believes vaccines are an important public health protection and with a disease like measles there is no question kids should be vaccinated. At the same time different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate.”

Almost every state allows religious as well as medical and even philosophical exemptions.

Paul, an ophthalmologist, has also clarified that he’s not anti-vaccine and “there are times when there can be rules.”

Yes. Without schools requiring vaccinations, every student is vulnerable. Yet opposing vaccinations gives some politicians a chance to rail against Big Brother, and bandy the specter of government intrusion into personal lives. It gives Climate Change deniers an opportunity to escalate their war on science. It even gave Hillary Clinton a chance to show off her “Grandma” credentials while tweeting sarcastically that the Earth is round.

Let them pile on to one another, but keep it in perspective. Unless there’s legitimate medical reason not to, vaccinate your kids.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.

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