By Ryan Olson (’24)
For many of those who had children before 2010, the decision of whether to vaccinate those children was simple. Now, it is no longer such a clear decision for many parents. The debate over immunization safety has been going on for several years, but with the COVID-19 pandemic (2019-present), the debate over if vaccination should be a personal choice has exploded. Hundreds if not thousands of people believe that it is one’s own choice as far as what substances go into their body, and even compare it to the “My Body, My Choice” movement surrounding abortion laws for women. On the other hand, a much greater number of people believe that individual choice and possible side effects do not trump the safety of the public. Although many people may argue that immunization is an individual choice, it has become abundantly clear – especially in recent years – that community health should outweigh individual choice for everybody that is able to receive vaccines.
Centuries of scientific research has gone into the creation and distribution of immunizations. The worlds of science and medicine have become extremely developed since the first vaccine attempt in 1796, and for many people this is sufficient to believe that immunizing themselves and their children is safe. Vaccines create an immune response within the body so that if the pathogen that a person is vaccinated against enters the body, the immune system recognizes it and can effectively fight it off. Therefore, vaccines not only protect us but they also protect those around us against many different diseases (WHO, 2020). Most recently, millions of people have chosen to get vaccinated despite the potential risks that came with the expedited development of the COVID vaccine. The driving factor behind the decision was that receiving the vaccine decreased the chance of the proven devastating effects of the disease because of the increased immune response. Many also considered the fact that it would bring our world to a sense of normalcy again, as others were now protected from the high risk of infection spread that once was a factor of COVID. According to Our World in Data (2022), 12.94 billion doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been distributed globally. While this data is not reflective of how many people are vaccinated as the vaccine is several doses, it does show that a large percentage of the world’s population (68.2%) has received at least one, if not both and booster doses, of the COVID-19 vaccine because of their ability to trust that those who are tasked with keeping us and the community safe are doing their jobs properly.
Conversely, there are thousands of people who do not believe that the people who are meant to create vaccines, medications, etc. to protect public health are doing that. According to Texas A&M University (2021), a survey of over 1,000 people proved that 22% of Americans identify as “anti-vaxxers”. This is a term given to those who choose not to vaccinate themselves and/or their families against any disease (not specifically COVID-19). As reported by Maya J. Goldenberg, a Philosophy professor at the University of Guelph, this anti-vaccination movement is a result of a “crisis of distrust” in science (2021). She states that this crisis has led to many other theories that make attempts to disprove scientific phenomena such as climate change and the moon landing. In her research, Goldenberg (2021) elaborates on the sociological and philosophical reasonings behind some individuals’ hesitancy to vaccinate and discusses why the world has come to a state of disagreement on the matter.
A major reason why people feel that vaccinating is an individual decision is because they believe that there are far too many risks in receiving immunizations. Referring to Goldenberg, many “anti-vaxxers” use evidence from a study done by Andrew Wakefield back in 1998. Wakefield and his colleagues alleged that the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine was a direct link to the development of Autism in children. The study attempted to prove that children who had received the MMR immunization exhibit “behavioral changes” approximately six days after receiving the immunization (an average taken from eight of the twelve children involved in the study who Wakefield allegedly proved developed Autism). Reported by Vox.com author Julia Belluz, Andrew Wakefield’s “research fraud catalyzed the vaccination movement,” (Belluz, 2019). The case study, published in one of the world’s top medical journals, was disproven countless times by “Autism researchers [who] have shown…that the developmental disorder is not caused by vaccines,” (Belluz, 2019). Not only has the study been debunked countless times, Wakefield’s medical license was revoked, and he was prosecuted. While it is the complete truth that vaccines do have adverse effects, this has never been something that doctors and researchers tried to hide. Additionally, these small side effects – typically headache, muscle soreness, mild fever, and fatigue (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2022) – is not enough of a reason to believe that experiencing mild discomfort is more of a risk than the public health crises that are likely to be raised by the decrease in vaccination rates.
Another major argument against vaccination is that it is just a way for these “Big Pharma” organizations to make money from citizens. While it is true that the organizations that research and produce immunizations receive funding, it is also true that vaccines cost a lot of money to make. On average, the COVID-19 vaccine cost the companies who participated in research and development (Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech) approximately $1.20 per dose (Oxfam International, 2021). If this number is taken and multiplied with the number of doses given per day (1.71 million according to ourworldindata.org, which is updated several times daily), it costs these companies a combined average of over $2.5 million to produce a singular day’s worth of vaccine doses. This data is only reflective of the COVID-19 immunization, it does not reflect the other vaccines that billions of people have received including DTaP, Influenza, MMR, Meningitis, HPV, Hepatitis, etc. If companies like these did not receive funding from the government to produce their vaccines, there would be no way to produce them, therefore an increased public health risk.
As previously stated, the above are examples of reasons that people believe vaccination is an individual choice – the risks, and whether they want to play a role in giving money to corporations. However, when it comes to protecting the greater good – the health of everyone – versus protecting oneself from mild risks and accidentally giving important organizations their needed funding, anybody should be willing to choose protecting the greater good, unless they have a legitimate reason to not get vaccinated (i.e., medical or religious). Since the outbreak of COVID-19, over six million people have succumbed to the disease (WHO, 2022). Moreover, almost 300,000 people die of Meningitis globally per year (PATH, 2021), along with anywhere from 15,000 to up to 50,000 deaths caused by Influenza annually. While this is only three infections, they are preventable ones that the world’s top doctors and scientists have researched and made attempts to eradicate, yet still affect millions annually. Although COVID is new and likely going to continue to spread for quite some time, there is no legitimate reason for children and adults alike to continue contracting avoidable diseases such as MMR, Meningitis, Polio, or the flu. All in all, when it comes down to whether the benefits of individual choice outweigh the risks to public health that not vaccinating can cause, people should be choosing to eradicate the risks to public health.
A brief history of vaccination. (2020, January 8). Immunisation Advisory Centre. https://www.immune.org.nz/vaccines/vaccine-development/brief-history-vaccination
Belluz, J. (2019, March 5). Vaccines don’t cause autism. Research fraud is what spawned the idea they do. Vox. https://www.vox.com/2018/2/27/17057990/andrew-wakefield-vaccines-autism-study
Burden of Influenza. (2022, October 4). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html
Goldenberg, M. J. (2021). Vaccine Hesitancy : Public Trust, Expertise, and the War on Science. University of Pittsburgh Press. https://eds.s.ebscohost.com/eds/detail?sid=437a3956-e1a7-44b6-9717-b8647b5eeeeb@redis&vid=0&format=EB&rid=1#AN=2752466&db=nlebk
How do vaccines work? (2020, December 9). https://www.who.int/news-room/feature-stories/detail/how-do-vaccines-work
Mathieu, E. (2020, March 5). Coronavirus (COVID-19) Vaccinations. Our World in Data. https://ourworldindata.org/covid-vaccinations
Office of Infectious Disease and HIV/AIDS Policy (OIDP). (2022, May 6). Vaccine Side Effects. HHS.gov. https://www.hhs.gov/immunization/basics/safety/side-effects/index.html
Texas A&M University. (2021, June 9). ‘Concerning’ number of Americans identify as anti-vaxxers. Futurity. https://www.futurity.org/how-many-americans-identify-as-anti-vaxxers-2578842/
Toward a world without meningitis. (n.d.). PATH. https://www.path.org/articles/toward-world-without-meningitis/
Vaccine monopolies make cost of vaccinating the world against COVID at least 5 times more expensive than it could be. (2021, October 29). Oxfam International. https://www.oxfam.org/en/press-releases/vaccine-monopolies-make-cost-vaccinating-world-against-covid-least-5-times-more
WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard. (n.d.). With Vaccination Data. https://covid19.who.int