I’d like to throw two numbers at you, but I can’t. I only have one to throw. That number is zero. It represents the number of deaths attributed to measles in the United States since 2003.
The second number is the number of deaths attributed to measles vaccines in the US since 2003. I don’t have that number because, while the Centers for Disease Control tracks “adverse event reports” for vaccines, it doesn’t make those statistics easy to find or compare.
But here’s a sample: In the first five months of 2011, 118 cases of measles were reported in the US. No one died of measles during that period. During the same period, CDC recorded 698 “adverse event reports” on measles vaccines, including combination vaccines like the Measles/Mumps/Rubella vaccine. Those reports include four deaths, but we can’t know if the vaccines actually caused the deaths because these reports are not usually thoroughly investigated.
No, I’m not here to regale you with unproven (and probably unprovable) tales of vaccine-related autism, religious arguments against vaccination, and so forth. But the simple fact of the matter is that both vaccination and non-vaccination entails risks. In each and every case, someone has to weigh those risks and make the decision to vaccinate or not vaccinate. Who should that someone be?
My answer is “the patient or the patient’s guardian.” Not because I reject the efficacy or morality of vaccines or the concept of “herd immunity” (I don’t), nor because I think them generally unsafe (adverse reactions are very much the exception, not the rule), but because I reject one-size-fits-all rule by designated experts on specious “public health” grounds.
Let me offer an analogy:
Some experts say that moderate consumption of alcohol — two to six drinks per week — reduces the risk of sudden cardiac death among men over 50.
I’m approaching 50, and although I’ve not been a big drinker for many years, I’ve begun trying to conform to the suggested booze regime. That’s a decision I am, and should be, free to make.
But suppose I consider drinking more dangerous than not drinking. Or that I just don’t like the taste of alcohol. Suppose I decide not to consume my minimum two drinks per week.
Is it OK for you to come to my house, hold me down on the floor, and pour Old Crow down my throat because I might otherwise someday have a heart attack at the wheel of my car and run down a family of four as they cross the street?
That’s the logic of “rule by public health experts.” It sounds silly — it IS silly — when applied to straight Kentucky bourbon. It’s equally silly, and equally dangerous, when applied to vaccinations. Nothing against experts, but their advice should be advisory, not mandatory.
Reality doesn’t offer us the option of eliminating risk. But to the extent that public policy offers us the option of preserving freedom of choice, we should vigorously guard and exercise that option.
Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.