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Needling The Anti-Vaccine Crowd: Who Gets Blamed When Kids Get Sick?

Dr. Shapero/Flickr
Dr. Shapero/Flickr

Art Caplan’s view on vaccinations and civic responsibility initiated an infectious response on the Harvard Law School blog where it first appeared and among WBUR's Here & Now listeners who tuned into the show earlier this week.

Caplan, the founding head of the Division of Bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center, argues that parents who veto vaccinations should be held legally responsible to any party that gets sick because of that decision.

Now, as anyone who has ever written about vaccines and parenting knows, when you touch on these topics, the comments can get pretty emotional.

Here's Paloma Smith:

...stop looking for excuses for your reckless behavior. Your child should be vaccinated, period. That is why diseases in this country are much less of a concern than in third-world countries. Because they don't have the resources that we do. They don't have the money for the different vaccinations. They suffer every day. It is because of responsible parents that your child is not at risk. Step up and make the right decision not for YOUR sake, but for your child's and everyone elses.

Or, as Lulusmom wrote:

I agree with Art Caplan 110%. People can be as backward as they want, until they endanger public health. Disease is still a real threat. Vaccines are not a perfect preventive but it's the best we've got.

Commenter Dontwalkdontrun called the act of not vaccinating children parental "abuse."

And others suggested that Caplan's proposal missed the larger point:

From Oassiss:

So the parents of unvaccinated kids could be sued because another person gets sick, but the pharmaceutical companies cannot be sued if the vaccine is not 100% effective, and/or injures a person.  Can he tell me how this is fair? Now, what about if someone catches a disease for which they were vaccinated against from another vaccinated person, since everyone knows that vaccines are not 100% effective.  Who gets sued?
His argument does not hold up.  Along his lines of "ethics", he should argue, as well, to hold pharmaceutical companies that make these vaccines accountable for damages they cause and for not being 100 % effective.

And Carlie wondered:

How about liability to our children when harmful vaccinations hurt our children, causing life-threatening and sometimes life-long illnesses? Art Caplan has it all wrong. If you want the population to comply, adjust the vaccination schedule, remove harmful toxins from the vaccines, break the vaccines up and delay the schedule! Infants should not be subjected to immune-altering antibodies on their day of birth. Their bodies simply aren't ready to handle... Fear of vaccinations will be reduced once our policyholders and medical health professionals realize that parents want SAFE, effective protection from diseases. It's simple really, reduce the fear by decreasing the number of harmful side effects and gain compliance.

Already, a "substantial minority" of doctors "dismiss" families who won't get their kids vaccinated, as we've reported here.

But pediatrician Carolyn Roy-Bornstein, who has written about the downside of not vaccinating children says in an email: "I really don't think threatening law suits is the way to encourage vaccinations. I do discuss our moral obligations to the community when I discuss vaccines with parents. I encourage folks to think of kids (like my niece with neuroblastoma) whose immune systems are faulty or infants who are too young to be vaccinated when they are thinking of refusing vaccines. But to threaten to sue parents who...are doing what they believe is best for their children, is foolhardy and, as the comments show, just angers folks."

This program aired on May 30, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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