Vaccination Debate: Personal Choice Versus Public Health

January 30, 2015 | Health Care
Some parents want to opt out of vaccinating their children, but others say it's putting public health at risk.

This is part of a three-part series delving into the issue of vaccination and the debate surrounding it. Find the rest of the series here.

By Briana Vannozzi

Five-month-old Penny Pompile is still too young to have most of the vaccinations required for kids by the CDC. That’s why her mom says she supports mandated vaccines.

“You know, vaccinations are to help so I can feel safe in taking my 5-month-old out in public somewhere and hoping she’s not going to come home with the measles or the whooping cough,” said mother Christine Pompile.

“If you have a certain percentage of people vaccinated in a community even those who are not vaccinated — whether those who are too young — who are older and were never vaccinated or have weak immune systems, for people who are more fragile in our communities, people with chronic diseases, they are protected by the other people who are vaccinated,” said Dr. David Levine, a pediatrician at Summit Medical Group.

But others want the option to make their own decision and feel that lack of choice is pitting parents against parents. Namely those who want the right to opt out.

“My children are not vaccinated. So we have a religious exemption,” said Sue Collins, co-founder of the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice.

In New Jersey, that’s one of the only ways to be excluded. There are now 20 states with what’s called a conscientious exemption. And in light of the spreading measles outbreak, there’s a renewed tension over advocates looking to bring it here.

“Vaccines must be a choice for parents to weigh. There are some benefits of possibly getting a disease and there are some benefits of getting a vaccine,” Collins said.

Collins points to data collected by the federal Health Department listing side effects and adverse reactions reported after vaccinations. NJTV News reviewed numerous lists and asked health experts about it.

“What we do know that vaccines are very safe and effective and that the FDA, various federal agencies monitor vaccine safety very, very, very well,” said Dr. Tina Tan.

A disclaimer with the site says doctors are asked to report any side effect after vaccines are given — whether they’re coincidental, like a cough or fever, or believed to be linked.

When asked about vaccines like polio, which have stamped out a crippling and deadly disease and have been proven to be effective, Collins said, “I think you have to go back and really look at the studies and the research and the vaccines are always given the credit for curing everything, but oftentimes the diseases were on the way out.”

Vaccine exemption rates in New Jersey are quite low — it hovers just under 2 percent — but in other pockets of the country like California where your personal, not just religious beliefs, allow you to opt out, that number is much higher.

“There’s been a huge pertussis, whooping cough outbreak in the U.S. again a lot of it coming out of California where they have a lot more exemptions,” Levine said.

“When people were dying of these diseases which are now gone, there’s a reason why they’re gone, and there’s a reason why they’re coming back,” Pompile said.

Which means Penny heads back to the doctor for her next round of shots this month.