There was a recent outbreak of measles in the United States which raised some interesting questions. Before we get to those questions, an introduction to measles. We don’t often think of measles as a dangerous disease but it’s one of the most contagious human diseases. To compare measles to other diseases in the news, a person with ebola can be expected to transmit the disease to 1-2 other people while the disease is in its infectious period, according to immunologists. A person with measles can be expected to transmit the disease to 12-18 other people. The most recent ebola outbreak has killed between 8,000 and 9,000 people but prior to this outbreak, only 738 people had died of the disease since it was first discovered in 1976. Worldwide measles kills 145,000 people.
Much of the current outbreak has been blamed on parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. Either because of religious objections or because of fears of the safety of the vaccines or other reasons. Some people simply question the need for vaccines at all. Immunologists hope that 100% of people receive vaccines but hope for a minimum level of 92% to achieve “herd immunity” to prevent outbreaks of diseases for which there are vaccines. Immunologists argue that people choosing not to vaccinate their children makes outbreaks of these diseases more likely. Because diseases like measles are so infectious, the diseases not only affect those who have not been vaccinated but also a certain percentage of children who haven’t.
This situation creates an interesting set of ethical questions.
- What takes precedent in a situation like this: a person’s freedom to make medical choices for themselves and their children or the health and well being of a larger population?
- Is it unethical for you to forgo vaccination if the potential cost of your choice is paid by someone else?
- Is it ethical to force someone to make health choices against their will if medical experts deem those choices necessary?
- How do we determine medical truth? What if a doctor did research that contradicted the rest of the medical establishment? Whose truth do we go by?
Below are some links to some of these issues.