As this linked PBS NewsHour interview between Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Judy Woodruff reports, the number of new cases of measles in the US has reached nearly 700, which is the highest number of new cases since measles was supposedly eliminated in 2000. The video is short and provides a quick review of the current causes of the outbreak and suggested steps one can take to mitigate future personal and family risks of contracting the disease. The reason for this being the subject of this bioethics blog is to touch on the ethical tensions between personal autonomy and utilitarian public health calculations regarding the recent measles outbreak.
So what is the problem with getting measles in the first place? Measles is a highly contagious viral respiratory disease. Simply being in the same room with someone with the disease can lead to becoming infected. In its milder form, the disease results in fever, runny nose, ear infection and a classic spotted red skin rash. In its more severe form, it can cause a severe pneumonia requiring hospitalization, deafness, lifelong brain damage and even death. Children under 5 years of age are at particular risk. A common two-stage vaccine called MMR is available that successfully immunizes 97% of those that receive it. It is given at age one and again around age 5.
The benefits of the immunization are two-fold. The first is direct personal protection against contracting the disease if you receive the vaccination and are one of the 97% of individuals who gain future immunity against the measles virus. The second is something called herd immunity. If enough people are immunized (experts estimate “enough” to be between 95-97% of the population), then even people who cannot be immunized, such as infants less than one year of age or individuals whose immune systems are compromised, are still somewhat protected from contracting the disease. This is because new measles cases from “outside the herd” are severely limited in their ability to spread to the small number of non-immunized people within the largely immunized herd. The immunized people effectively act as a physical barrier to protect the non-immunized people. Problem solved, right?
To quote my favorite ESPN College Gameday commentator coach Lee Corso: “Not so fast, my friend”. The measles vaccine is not completely risk-free. Minor side effects include fever, rash and local injection site infections. Much less common but more severe reactions include seizures and rare deaths from severe allergic reactions. In the late 1990s, the British medical journal Lancet published a study by Andrew Wakefield positing a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. This study was later proven to be a completely falsified claim and Wakefield was completely discredited, though some parents still use the original study to argue against vaccinating their children.
If the vaccine were completely risk-free, there would be no logical or ethical reason not to receive the vaccination. If everyone who could take the vaccine did so, herd immunity from a public health standpoint would be at its maximum, protecting the remainder of individuals unable to receive or benefit from the vaccine. The current measles outbreak argues that either we are not properly screening or quarantining new cases of measles at the point of entry to the US or our herd immunity may be breaking down (or some combination of the above).
So, at your next social function, after you have debated your usual political concerns or dismay at your favorite NFL football team’s shocking choice in the recent NFL draft, settle in to a potentially more meaningful discussion around the ethics of personal autonomy versus public health policy regarding mandatory measles screening, quarantining and vaccination. Suggested sub-topics might include:
• Is it fair for those who are able to vaccinate but choose not to vaccinate to freely rely on the herd immunity of those that do vaccinate?
• How public should one’s vaccination or immunity status be to avoid quarantine?
• What reasons are reasonable to choose not to immunize?
• Would it be fair to deny public (or private) insurance coverage for treating the measles if one chose not to take the vaccine?