Victims, vectors and villains: are those who opt out of vaccination morally responsible for the deaths of others?

Journal of Medical Ethics (12):762-768 (2016)
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Abstract

Mass vaccination has been a successful public health strategy for many contagious diseases. The immunity of the vaccinated also protects others who cannot be safely or effectively vaccinated—including infants and the immunosuppressed. When vaccination rates fall, diseases like measles can rapidly resurge in a population. Those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons are at the highest risk of severe disease and death. They thus may bear the burden of others' freedom to opt out of vaccination. It is often asked whether it is legitimate for states to adopt and enforce mandatory universal vaccination. Yet this neglects a related question: are those who opt out, where it is permitted, morally responsible when others are harmed or die as a result of their decision? In this article, we argue that individuals who opt out of vaccination are morally responsible for resultant harms to others. Using measles as our main example, we demonstrate the ways in which opting out of vaccination can result in a significant risk of harm and death to others, especially infants and the immunosuppressed. We argue that imposing these risks without good justification is blameworthy and examine ways of reaching a coherent understanding of individual moral responsibility for harms in the context of the collective action required for disease transmission. Finally, we consider several objections to this view, provide counterarguments and suggest morally permissible alternatives to mandatory universal vaccination including controlled infection, self-imposed social isolation and financial penalties for refusal to vaccinate.

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Toby Handfield
Monash University

References found in this work

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