Bioethics in Practice: What’s More Deadly: The Vaccine or Anti Vaxxers?
About a year ago, I was in shul waiting for minyan to begin when a woman began speaking to me. After a few minutes of casual conversation, she started crying and complained that the measles vaccine had ruined her son’s life. She claimed that the vaccine had made her son decline both cognitively and physically. At the time, it felt strange blaming the mechanism used to help prevent the disease as the cause of the disease. However, I couldn’t see myself convincing this woman of my gut feeling because I hadn’t yet researched vaccines and their backgrounds. Before I go into more details of this story, let me give some background on vaccines in general.
Vaccines are not ordinary medications that treat a disease once the patient has been exposed to it. Rather, they are a preventative medication that trains the body’s immune system before getting in contact with the disease itself. While many mistakenly label vaccines as “deadly,” when looking at the world today, it is obvious that they are decreasing and even obliterating the risk of deadly diseases such as polio, tetanus, rubella and chickenpox. This plays into the concept of herd immunity, namely, that people are indirectly protected from diseases as a result of most of the population already being immune through inoculation. Vaccines generally go through many years of testing with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and, once approved, go through close monitoring with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and other federal agencies in order to ensure they are potent, pure and sterile.
There are several different types of ways vaccines are created and applied. In one method, the virus is killed and then injected into the body. Using this method, there is no risk for the reproduction of the virus or the causation of disease. This type of vaccine can, therefore, be administered to those with weaker immune systems, although the person may need multiple doses to ensure immunity. Another type of vaccine uses attenuated live viruses, which are functional because they still induce memory B cells that prevent future infection, even though they don’t reproduce as much as live viruses. This type of vaccine is strong, and therefore only a few doses are enough to achieve complete immunity. Its downside is that those with weak immune systems can’t receive the vaccine. This dilemma strikes at the core of most ethical issues regarding vaccination.
Some religious communities and schools of philosophy claim that their beliefs conflict with the administration of vaccinations and disagree with mandates for inoculation released by schools. Some schools only allow those who have received specific vaccines to attend, in order to ensure the safety and comfort of students with compromised immune systems. In contrast, “anti-vaxxers” — as they are colloquially referred to as — invoke their right to individual autonomy, which would be compromised by forced inoculation to attend school. Others claim that by not vaccinating children, herd immunity won’t be achieved, putting children with weak immune systems in danger. These children no longer feel safe to go to the one normal, consistent activity in their lives — school.
Until recently, there had not been much buzz regarding the anti-vaxxers versus pro-vaxxers. However, a major outbreak of measles recently occurred in the U.S., centering in Haredi Jewish communities. According to the CDC, over a thousand cases of measles were confirmed, the largest outbreak of cases since the disease was declared eliminated over 20 years ago.
A major contribution to the questioning of the effectiveness of vaccines comes from an article published in The Lancet — a prestigious peer-reviewed British medical journal — by Andrew Wakefield that correlated the increase in cases of autism with the measles vaccination. He included false data, wrong correlations and had a small sample size. It is surprising this study even got published. Regardless of the fact that this article was eventually retracted, the rumors and ideas it spread continue on.
Despite the absurdity of the article, it was strong enough to leave a strong impression on the lady crying to me in shul. With the above information about vaccines, I was able to better understand her story retroactively. Although her son went to a top-tier school that required vaccines, her family comes from a religious community that strongly opposes vaccines. Her son started to feel sick and, as a result of fear of being kicked out of the school, immediately got the vaccine. A few days later he was diagnosed with measles. The family immediately jumped to the conclusion that the vaccine was not effective, and in fact detrimental. It is indeed horrible that this family is going through this situation, and the feeling of a need to blame something is justified. However, it is hard to find truth in this woman’s claim.
First, due to the fact that a very weak form of the virus was administered in this particular case, it cannot be that the vaccine caused the measles to manifest itself. It would be difficult to say that this vaccine was a fluke while passing all the requirements and countless checkings of the FDA, NIH and CDC. Additionally, the mother mentioned that her son started feeling sick before he took the vaccine. Perhaps he already started showing symptoms of measles and the vaccine made no difference; since it is just a preventative drug, it doesn’t alleviate conditions once the disease is in the system.
In halakhic terms, this question can get complicated. Indeed, there are some Haredi and Hasidic rabbis who ban vaccines in their communities, and some individuals do not inoculate their children accordingly. Originally, the measles outbreak centered in locales predominantly occupied by Haredi Jews like Williamsburg, Borough Park and Monsey. This situation has undoubtedly created a chillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name).
Vaccines are one of the crowning achievements of modern medicine. They have nearly eradicated deadly diseases throughout the U.S. and the world. While they may be wrong in the scientific realm, anti-vaxxers may have a point by thinking their autonomy and liberties are being trodden upon by being forced to vaccinate. However, I disagree with their position due to the fact that multiple diseases that can be eradicated through vaccines — such as measles, mumps and cholera — are reemerging. Notwithstanding, my hope is that anti-vaxxers will eventually come to realize the scientific truth and change their adverse attitude to common-sense policy.
Photo Caption: A vaccine
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