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Another Voice: Take legal action against those who refuse vaccinations

By Gregory Roloff and Camille Pennacchia

Drunken driving is against the law because states feel obligated to intervene when the actions of a few endanger the lives of many. In the wake of the current measles outbreak fueled by the anti-vaccine movement, we should embrace similar legal actions to keep society safe.

Recently, federal courts in New York have continuously ruled in favor of the state’s immunization policy. In a June 2014 verdict, the judge quoted a Supreme Court decision establishing that “there are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good.”

Interestingly, an opposite situation has ensued in California. After years of chemotherapy precluded his ability to be immunized, 6-year-old Rhett Krawitt is at significant risk for infection. Given the number of area parents opting out of vaccination for philosophical or religious reasons, Rhett’s father petitioned the school district to protect his son by banning the unvaccinated.

These situations illustrate the conflicting landscape of state vaccination laws. Since diseases do not respect state borders, we should adopt a national effort to end scientifically baseless exemptions.

But could a society reasonably pursue legal measures against those spreading disease? We already do. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, if patients with active tuberculosis refuse medication, health officials can use the justice system in order to safeguard others. In severe cases of treatment refusal, individuals may be detained if experts believe that the absence of such confinement would endanger the public.

We must remember that many people cannot be vaccinated due to medical conditions. They rely on us to insulate them by maintaining our own immunity. While appeals made by the Krawitt family and others have been controversial, those families are not obligated to acknowledge any “right” of unvaccinated persons to harm the vulnerable.

Such a principle extends beyond infectious diseases. Nationwide, many elementary schools have banned peanut products out of concern for a small number of allergic students. Is it acceptable to approach measles or whooping cough with any less vigilance?

Too many children have been needlessly martyred due to fears that are unfounded. The refusal to accept scientific evidence is not proof of its inadequacy. Only together can we prevent new outbreaks. We can do better. And we must.

Gregory Roloff is a student at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and researches therapeutic vaccines for advanced cancers. Camille Pennacchia is a student at the University at Buffalo School of Law and an associate at the Buffalo Law Review.