Eric Risberg, AP
This Feb. 6, 2015, file photo shows a measles, mumps and rubella vaccine on a countertop at a pediatrics clinic in Greenbrae, Calif. The U.S. has counted more measles cases in the first two months of this year than in all of 2017 — and part of the rising threat is misinformation that makes some parents balk at a crucial vaccine, federal health officials told Congress Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2019.

Recent measles outbreaks across the United States are as disappointing as they are worrisome, and now they renew an old challenge for state lawmakers: Should government be responsible for ensuring children get their vaccines?

It’s a conflict of personal freedom and societal good. Roughly 95 percent of a community needs the treatment in order for vaccines to protect others. Given human nature’s proclivity for self-interest rather than altruism, the easiest way to reach herd immunity is by government mandate.

But some make a viable argument against allowing government to force what they claim is an individual decision. That’s why every state has over the years allowed exemptions to parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. Some exemptions are medical — weak immune systems or certain allergies pose a higher risk of negative effects. Other exemptions, however, are for personal reasons, and it seems a tide of misinformation across the past two decades has nursed the rise of those citing personal or philosophical objections for forgoing the treatments.

Utah is among 17 states that honor personal reasons for objecting to vaccines. Utah also ranks 41st in the nation for the number of 2-year-olds who are fully immunized, according to the 2017 National Immunization Survey.

That trend worries medical experts who say the risks of not immunizing far outweigh any risk associated with receiving a vaccine. Commenting on the confirmation of 206 measles cases this year alone, Rich Lakin, immunization program manager at the Utah Department of Health, told the Deseret News, "I think that's probably a pretty good indicator that if you're not going to vaccinate, then we're going to see these diseases come back again.”

Vaccines have long been proven effective. Those whose lives bridge the pre- and post-vaccine worlds might well describe their effects as miraculous. And while medical professionals confirm vaccination carries an extremely small risk of negative effects — as does any drug — they also affirm the measles vaccine is responsible for reducing the measles-related death toll in the United States from 500 annually to basically zero. The last measles-related death in the U.S. occurred in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

" We are asking for a robust debate, based on scientific evidence and respecting religious and cultural considerations, to determine how personal freedom and societal protection should look in 2019. "

That work has largely been accomplished by mandates to immunize children before they enter school. There is no evidence-based reason for this to end.

What Utah and other state legislatures must grapple with is where to draw the line between individual choice and a responsibility to protect their residents.

Viewing the problem through the lens of public safety is the best method. Consider seat belt laws, smoke-free zones and speed limits. In each of these intersections, the state has a compelling interest to not only keep the individual safe, but to protect others around them.

24 comments on this story

Through that scope, medical exemptions to vaccines have merit and ought to continue so as not to harm persons unable to process the immunization. Personal objections, however, deserve greater scrutiny from lawmakers. We are asking for a robust debate, based on scientific evidence and respecting religious and cultural considerations, to determine how personal freedom and societal protection should look in 2019.

It’s up to states to determine how best to keep their residents safe, but we hope that discussion adequately weighs the harm of allowing too many to walk vaccine-free.