Rules Are for Schmucks: Freedom to Infect

The measles virus infecting healthy cells.

Vaccination has been in the news lately, as America experiences a new spread of a measles virus that we were told had been stamped out fifteen years ago. Politicians led by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have been quick to jump on the outbreak to try to curry favor with the religious right by declaring that anyone who has a religious objection (or even a non-religious objection) to vaccination shouldn’t have to get one—for themselves or their children.

Even President Obama jumped on the religious exemption bandwagon, with the White House proclaiming last week that no law is necessary to get parents to vaccinate their children.

State legislatures are making hay with the issue as well. There are only two states that don’t currently allow for exemptions to vaccination rules—Mississippi and West Virginia, hardly the places you’d expect. But lawmakers in both these states have suddenly awakened to an overlooked pander opportunity, and are busily trying to create yet more religious special privileges there.

There are many reasons why vaccination should be mandatory, except in those rare cases where it is medically risky. There is the effect on already exorbitant healthcare costs—a 2008 outbreak in San Diego, for example, cost taxpayers $10,376 per case. There’s the need to protect innocent children from religion-crazed parents. But we don’t have to get into all that, because there is a much simpler argument to be made.

If refusal to vaccinate affected only those who were willing to risk their own health, then the civil liberties argument against mandatory vaccination would be stronger. The Hollywood rumor mill, for example, has been abuzz that actor Val Kilmer is refusing treatment for a tumor because of his Christian Science pray-it-away beliefs. He denies this. But even if it’s true, a tumor would affect only him, and it’s really no one else’s business.

That is absolutely not the case with vaccination. Every person who refuses to vaccinate increases the risk of disease for everyone else. Take a look at the short Reuters video of two-year-old Stephen Coffey, who cannot be vaccinated because he recently had a liver transplant, wreaking havoc on his immune system. If he gets exposed to someone who has contracted measles (or any number of other diseases) because of some religious or other objection to vaccination, he is likely to sicken, and possibly die.

If a two-year-old doesn’t pull at your heartstrings, then consider your poor author. Last year I got my flu shot in the fall, as always, then proceeded to be hit with a moderately bad case of influenza in the spring anyway. When I complained about the unfairness of it all to my doctor, he explained that the flu vaccine is nowhere near 100 percent effective. It’s just the best thing we happen to have right now.

I didn’t catch that flu from the sky. I caught it from someone else. If that someone was a person who didn’t get vaccinated, for religious or any other reason, then I wish there were a hell (or at least a purgatory) for him or her to rot in for a while.

In thirty-two states the reckless transmission of HIV is actually a crime. It’s debatable whether going that far is a good idea, but it seems much less debatable that government should not be drawing a roadmap to facilitate the reckless transmission of other dangerous contagious diseases.

In Los Angeles, where the latest measles outbreak is centered, one doctor is taking a creative approach. Dr. Charles Goodman has posted a notice in his waiting room saying that he will no longer see patients who have not been vaccinated. “Parents who choose not to give measles shots, they’re not just putting their kids at risk, but they’re also putting other kids at risk—especially kids in my waiting room,” he explained. Other doctors have been “firing” patients who refuse to take precautions to care for themselves and others.

These doctors are onto something. The anti-vaccinators say they want “freedom.” Well, I want freedom too. I want the freedom to protect myself from those who would put me at risk. I want the freedom to avoid sitting next to these people on a bus, or in a restaurant, or in a workplace. Stephen Coffey’s parents want the freedom not to send their son to places like the Illinois day care center where five children just came down with measles. The problem is, we don’t know who the reckless infectors are, so we don’t have the freedom to avoid them.

So here’s my simple plan. Keep all those religious and other vaccination exemptions for measles, flu, or anything else. But anyone who doesn’t get vaccinated has to prominently display a symbol to warn others. Something like the Mr. Yuk poison symbol, perhaps tattooed on the forehead, would be appropriate. In addition, there should be an exception to every civil rights law on the books, making it clear that every business or other place where people congregate is perfectly free to exclude risk-spreaders, if it chooses to, by public notice. That way I (and a couple of hundred million others) could know which places to avoid. We already ban smoking in restaurants because of the health effects of second-hand smoke on employees and patrons—why shouldn’t we ban reckless infectors as well?

Ultimately, social pressure would force these risk-spreaders out of the mainstream to band together in little disease-ridden voluntary leper colonies. We’re already seeing anti-vaccination parents deliberately exposing their children to a potentially deadly virus at do-it-yourself “measles parties,” which medical professionals find to be an astonishingly stupid idea—almost comical, if it weren’t for the fact that it’s children who will suffer.