Vaccinations: Are They a Public or Private Issue?

To gain some insight on the issues surrounding the current public dialogue about the importance of vaccinations, we turned to individuals who are active in the debate for their opinions. We asked them the following questions:

  • Would you consider vaccinations to be a public health issue that requires a government mandate, or would you consider the issue to be a personal choice?
  • Why do you feel it is a public health imperative or a personal choice?

Read on for our panel’s opinion on whether or not vaccinations are a public or private issue.

Dr. Roy Benaroch, MD

Assistant Adjunct Professor of Pediatrics at Emory University
Author of “The Pediatric Insider” blog

It’s very reasonable for states to require vaccination for attendance at public schools in order to protect all of the children and staff there. The only exception to school vaccination requirements should be legitimate medical exemptions.


Dr. David Benton, RGN, RMN, BS, MS, MPhil, PhD, FFNF, FRCN

Chief Executive Officer of the International Council of Nurses

The reality is that it is both a public health issue and a matter of choice. Not all vaccines are equal and they deal with differing levels of risk. In cases where an infective agent is highly contagious, has a very high fatality rate, and the vaccine is extremely effective then there is a strong case to be made for making immunization programs mandatory. The program, if it reaches a high enough percentage of coverage, can convey herd immunity on those that, for health reasons, may not be able to take the vaccine. It is not just those who die that need to be considered, many of them will leave dependents behind, so the issue becomes one of taking action for the good of the many at the cost of individual choice.


Lynn Bozof

President of the National Meningitis Association

When my son Evan died of meningococcal disease, we didn’t know that what happened to him could have been prevented. I’m thrilled that now there are routine recommendations for the meningitis vaccine, but sometimes recommendations are not enough. Sometimes people don’t make prevention a priority because they’re young and healthy, and don’t think that something like this could happen to them. I’m thankful for any public health policies that make the right thing to do, the easy thing to do.


Dr. Ari Brown, MD, FAAP

Founder of 411 Pediatrics

Author of “Expecting 411,” “Baby 411,” and “Toddler 411”

The reason why a national vaccination program (or international one for that matter) is so critical is that for it to be successful, the majority of the population needs to be vaccinated. These “hot pockets” of under-vaccinated people, leave communities ripe for outbreaks. The problem is that people who opt not to vaccinate tend to flock together and live in the same communities and send their kids to the same schools.


California Coalition for Health Choice

Medical decisions should be a personal matter between families and their health practitioners. Government shouldn’t be involved. And it should never mandate a procedure that carries risk. One size does not fit all.


Karen Ernst

Leader at Voices for Vaccines

The primary reason we immunize a child is to protect that child against disease. As the primary focus of immunization is the individual, in a sense, it is a personal decision. However, vaccines also have the intended consequence of community immunity. This means vaccines are not a solely private decision, but rather a decision that affects entire communities.


Denise and Alan Fields

Co-Authors of “Baby 411”

The struggle between privacy and personal rights, and public health has been a debate even before our country was founded. A long established principal is for the government to require personal responsibility in exchange for use of public space. Infectious diseases don’t care whether you are a libertarian or a socialist — they will infect anyone. A personal choice not to vaccinate puts an entire community at risk. Your personal choice ends when you enter a public space and endanger other community members.


Barbara Loe Fisher

President and Spokeswoman for the National Vaccine Information Center

The right of the state to tell us what to do to our bodies and the bodies of our children ends where our right to protect our lives and our children’s lives begins. No liability-free doctor inside or outside of government should be given the power to punish us if we choose not to play vaccine roulette with liability-free vaccines. We will not give up our human rights for our civil rights. We will not give up the human right to informed consent of medical risk taking, in order to exercise our civil right to an education, medical care, and employment.


Kelley Heyworth

Mother, Health Journalist

In the case of vaccines, it truly takes a village to protect a village.


Dr. Paul Hunter, MD

Associate Professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

Since the health of vulnerable members of society depends on herd immunity from everyone else getting vaccinated, immunization policy is most certainly a public health issue. At the same time, persons who are hesitant to be vaccinated, and parents hesitant to have their children vaccinated are often responding to complex information and conflicting interpretations. Publicly shaming parents who do not vaccinate, by accusing them of not looking out for the best interest of their children, is not only probably inaccurate, it is likely to undermine the trust needed to achieve high vaccination rates.


JJ Keith

Teacher, Author of “Motherhood Smotherhood”

An accurate comparison for vaccine mandates would be laws against drunk driving, as mandates reduce danger for both the individuals being vaccinated and their surrounding community. Just as it is reasonable to expect that roads are free of drunk drivers, we should expect that sidewalks are free from carriers of potentially fatal vaccine-preventable diseases.


Dr. Mike Magee, MD

Author of the blog “Health Commentary”

As a child who had polio at age four in 1952, I know well what America looks like without vaccine protections. To be effective, we all need to cooperate. Healthy people require healthy communities.


Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases

Living in society requires that we all find and occupy that space between personal freedom and public good. Today’s vaccines are safe and effective. Unless there is a medical reason not to do so, vaccination should be required for public school entry.


Dr. LJ Tan, MS, PhD

Chief Strategy Officer for the Immunization Action Coalition

Co-Chair of the National Adult Immunization Summit and National Influenza Vaccine Summit

In the interest of improving the health of the public, all should be vaccinated. And as such, it is not a decision that can be left to personal choice, especially when we know that the vaccines are safe and effective. There is a lot of precedence where the rights of the individual have been moderated in order to protect the health of the public. Quarantine is one example, and the Supreme Court’s historic decision with regards to smallpox vaccination is another.


Ron Waldman, MD, MPH

President of the Doctors of the World USA

Professor at the GWU Milken Institute School of Public Health

Protecting its population is one of the core functions of government. This means ensuring that people are safe from threats of all kinds, including biological ones, even if those threats are posed by their neighbors. Vaccines are a proven way to provide protection from infectious diseases. Their widespread use has led to a steep decline in the occurrence of vaccine-preventable diseases in children, and their accompanying death toll, is indisputable. It is a well-recognized tenet of human rights laws that respect for individual liberty does not extend to putting the lives of others at risk. The government not only should, but also must mandate vaccination with few exceptions, in order to fulfill its obligation to protect the health and the lives of those it governs.