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Vaccines vital to overall public health


Some people believe one thing, some believe another. That’s great. That’s freedom. That’s America.

But what if you believe that it’s OK to swerve to the opposite side of the road when you drive?

What if you believe that children should be able to buy alcohol? What if you think it’s OK to set forest fires?

Obviously, acting on such beliefs could get you into big trouble, and even the most free-thinking libertarian would be unlikely to defend you.

Not getting vaccinations for yourself or your children falls into the same general category.

Indiana and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control last week began a major effort to persuade parents to get their children vaccinated as newborns. Some families wait until their kids start school to have them immunized against tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough and meningitis. But that leaves children unprotected against devastating diseases for the first years of their lives.

Even when their children are entering school, some parents ask for them to be exempted from legally required vaccinations.

Nothing is perfectly safe, but the risk of vaccine-related problems is minuscule. Many, many lives have been saved, and much suffering has been averted by modern vaccines.

Doctors, scientists and health officials do their best to calm the fears of parents who read the scare stories on the Internet or hear them from misguided and misguiding celebrities.

Scott Stienecker, medical director of epidemiology and infection prevention for Parkview Health, doesn’t know quite how to convey the truth to those who have chosen to believe the claptrap.

“It’s a bit like having to argue with the Flat Earth Society,” Stienecker said. “The time we see the arguments bear out is when they’re looking at their loved one” in a hospital bed.

Indeed, health policymakers are considering ways to override individual choice on vaccinations, especially for health care workers.

“People who choose not to vaccinate, they become a burden to everyone,” Stienecker said.

He pointed out that even those who become ill after they’ve avoided a flu vaccination can end up facing weeks or months in the hospital. “What right do you have if you get sick to require that I pay for your care?” Stienecker asked.

Beyond the cost, beyond the deva- station to individual families, there is the danger that a disease that has been beaten into dormancy by decades of mass immunization could reappear in a population if enough parents withhold their children or themselves from the protection of vaccines.

“I now think that it is the duty of each person to minimize the risk that they’re going to be infected,” Stienecker said.

Duty is a word we don’t hear that much outside of the military context. But it’s appropriate. Do your duty. Get your kids vaccinated. It’s not just about you and your children. It’s about all of us.