Public Health Authoritarianism

Governments in the united states have forced people to have their children vaccinated against various diseases for decades now.  The primary way they accomplish this is by requiring kids to have a range of immunizations before they are granted the “privilege” of entering government schools.  While exemptions may be granted for religious or medical reasons, most parents comply with the rules and have their kids stuck.

However, in recent years, more and more people have resisted the pressures put on them by the authorities and have questioned the need and/or safety of many of the mandatory vaccinations.  Vaccine skeptics sometimes fear that certain preparations may cause autism, or might believe that hepatitis B is not a significant risk for younger kids, or think that frequent and multiple vaccinations could be linked to autoimmune diseases.  Although these concerns are generally dismissed out-of-hand by the public health and medical establishments, they remain real for some parents.

Whatever the reasons for resistance to mandatory vaccination, the authorities do not take kindly to their subjects pushing back against their regulations.  Although only a few thousand of the 3,700,000 students entering kindergarten in 2005 were officially exempted, many other kids, whether intentionally or not, do not get vaccinated when they are supposed to and this tends to piss off the bullies who run the schools.  So in maryland last month a judge required supposedly delinquent parents to come to court within days and either prove their kids had their shots, get them immunized that day, or go to jail.  In this case, many of the suspects actually had already submitted and had their kids jabbed, but the inept school system lost or otherwise fucked up their records and they had to prove once again that they were good citizens.  But the intended take-home message here, as in most interactions between rulers and subjects, is that resistance is futile: submit to the demands of the state or go to jail

The Importance of Mandatory Immunization?

         Although the rates of death and disability associated with most infectious diseases were already low and declining in the united states before vaccines were introduced, mass immunization has reduced the incidence of these diseases, and thus the complications and deaths associated with them as well.  And since they are freely available in this country, there are few barriers to people having themselves or their children vaccinated.  Therefore, those who believe it is prudent to get immunized can do so and thus protect themselves and their family against these diseases.  But the bureaucrats and experts cannot leave it to people to decide these matters for themselves.  They think it perfectly appropriate to force people to do what is right, or healthy, or prudent if they haven’t decided to do it on their own.  So they require compliance with their immunization “recommendations.”

In addition to their basic approach of pushing people around for their own good, however, the public health authorities also believe that by forcing vaccinations on the vast majority of people they are protecting the few who cannot get immunized for medical reasons, or have immune systems that are inadequate to fight infections even when they have been immunized, as is often the case for people with cancer or immune deficiency diseases.  The theory is that there needs to be a certain background level of immunization in a population in order for there to be too few susceptible individuals to sustain an outbreak, thus minimizing the chance any infected person will infect another.  This is called herd immunity, perhaps because the public health officials, like all bureaucrats, consider the rest of us to be cattle.  The bottom line is that people are forced to undergo a procedure, vaccination, which does have real, though very small, risks associated with it to protect someone else from a similarly small risk of infection should the person avoiding immunization get ill.  While assuming some additional risk for oneself or one’s family to help protect others may be virtuous, it should not be mandatory.

Arguments Against the Needle

         A case could be made that the reason immunization resisters can so easily make the calculation that it is safer to risk infection than to take vaccines is because so many others have been forced into getting them.  This is true, but does not invalidate their concerns or serve to justify forced vaccination.  The only approach to getting skeptics to vaccinate themselves and/or their children that is consistent with a libertarian ethic is to convince them it is the right thing for them to do.  That can be done only by demonstrating that their reservations are unwarranted or exaggerated and that it is somehow in their own interests to do so.

It has proven difficult, though, to argue against some of the concerns expressed by those who speak out against vaccination.  For instance, one of the more common beliefs among vaccine opponents is that childhood immunizations, especially MMR, are linked to the supposed outbreak of autism and associated disorders.  The theory goes that autism is being diagnosed in ever increasing numbers, many kids’ autistic behavior began around the time they were vaccinated with MMR, that MMR used to contain the presumed toxin thimerosal (which is mercury-based), and, thus, MMR caused (and may continue to cause) the autism “epidemic.”

The fact that there have been a number of scientific studies that have debunked this hypothesis has not done much to change the minds of those who believe it.  The stories circulating around from parents whose kids are supposed victims of MMR seem to outweigh any evidence that is presented, and the expanding definition of what constitutes autism and autism spectrum disorders just adds to the problem.  Once relatively rare, these diagnoses have become more and more common in the united states, although it may well be that this is due more to overdiagnosis than to a true increase in these conditions.  More and more developmental irregularities are considered pathological and are being included in this growing category of illness.  As with other realms of human behavior, if individuals stray too far from expectations, an underlying illness or disorder is assumed and people are labeled with whatever condition is currently in vogue to describe their abnormality.  More and more “autism” occurring in the same time frame with more and more vaccinations reinforces the connection in the minds of a number of people.

Whatever the real risks associated with MMR, there have been documented problems with other vaccines.  Remember swine flu and guillain-barré syndrome?  Well, after the government managed to manipulate people into getting vaccinated against the fake threat of swine flu, a number of those immunized developed paralysis that was clearly related to the vaccine they received.  And more recently, experts with WHO have acknowledged problems with polio vaccines, where the vaccinations have themselves caused polio outbreaks.  So even though concerns about the safety of some vaccines may be overblown, experience has shown that skepticism about immunizations is not unfounded and should not be lightly dismissed

Where’s the (Infected) Beef?

         Persistent urban legends and cold hard facts about vaccine side effects are only part of the difficulty faced when arguing against the skeptics.  At least as important is the fact that public health experts and government authorities have often been less than straightforward in their assessment of risks to individuals, whether of getting an infectious disease or of a bad outcome caused by vaccines.  This is not surprising given their goal of protection of the “public” health, a mission which assigns individuals to a secondary status, and considers their desires and needs less important than those of the community.  They look only at the statistics, at prevalence and incidence of diseases in the community at large, and if vaccination or any other control strategy results in better statistics for the group as a whole, they try their best to enforce such measures.  Furthermore, they are willing to use whatever means they think will work, including exaggeration, if not outright lies, as well as force.

The authorities have misled people about the prevalence and risk of HIV infection, both in the united states and around the world.  They have tried to scare people in this country with fake threats like west nile virus, bird flu, TB, adult pertussis, or whatever is the infectious disease du jour.  Although the bureaucrats in the federal and state governments, as well as those in international bodies like WHO, generally dismiss criticism of their scare tactics, skeptics have often been shown to be right in hindsight.  The american HIV “epidemic” never really was one, and the WHO last month acknowledged at long last they have been overcounting HIV cases around the world.  A number of recent pertussis outbreaks were proven to be nothing of the sort, despite significant costs and inconvenience to the victims of overzealous public health guardians.  Hysteria over the danger of TB outbreaks, including concern about the “renegade” airline passenger earlier this year, has also proven unfounded.  And it looks like the chances that this month’s mumps outbreak in maine will fulfill the fantasies of new england’s state epidemiologists and become a regional threat to public health are minimal.  While we are constantly being warned of one infectious threat after another, we’re still waiting for the threatened outbreak of SARS, bird flu, mad cow disease, dengue, or ebola to actually happen here.

The Governmental-Medical-Industrial Complex

         In addition to the public health experts’ lack of credibility when it comes to proclaiming what is risky and what isn’t, the fact that politicians’ support of mandatory vaccination appears at times to meet the needs of pharmaceutical manufacturers more than those of the individuals affected just makes it that much harder to believe that immunization rules are necessarily based on real analysis of risks and benefits and not on some other incentive.  A case in point is what happened with the HPV vaccine Gardasil earlier this year.  Instead of letting people decide if it was wise to have themselves or their daughters injected with this vaccine based on the merits of the scientific evidence, Merck decided that spending money to ”lobby” politicians to make the vaccine mandatory was a potentially more profitable business strategy.  Although their scheme was discovered and they were forced to back off, one wonders if this is the first and only time a drug company has manipulated the political system to market its products by government mandate.

The Agglomeration of Church and State

         So it should be no surprise, given the demonstrable lack of scientific rigor and tendency towards hyperbole found among the public health bureaucrats, as well as the questionable motivations of politicians forcing vaccines on the rest of us, that attempts to convince vaccine resisters that immunization is safe and opposition is irrational have been less than successful.  But what is interesting in light of the seriousness of some of the attempts to impose immunization of unwilling subjects, is that the argument against vaccines which is, in fact, truly irrational is the one that the authorities are most likely to consider valid when allowing exemptions from mandatory programs.  And that is the contention that vaccination violates one’s religious beliefs.

While there may be scant evidence for a connection between vaccines and autism, and inadequate data to prove a link between immunizations and asthma, there is precisely no evidence for the existence of god.  But despite that, those who believe that a higher power has dictated that they not allow themselves or their kids to get vaccinated are the ones who stand the best chance of being allowed to avoid these shots.  This has encouraged parents with secular objections to immunizations to pretend they have superstitious reasons for their wish to exempt their children as well, since they have learned that politicians are more hesitant to avoid offending someone’s religious fantasies than they are to respect people’s genuine concerns about threats to their or their families’ health.  Despite the supposed separation between church and state in this country, here is but one more example where government supports religious faith, while rejecting individual freedom of choice.

Leave Those Kids Alone

         But all this discussion of government force, vaccine safety, and religious prejudices leaves out perhaps a more important issue than any of the others that have been raised: that of whether anyone, either a school board or a parent, should be making the decisions about what to force another person to ingest or have injected.  This question has come up in the public debates about vaccination when some have argued that an anti-HPV vaccine would encourage girls to fuck around, or that in most cases there is little risk of children contracting hepatitis B before they start having sex, and thus these immunizations should be delayed until kids are older.  While these concerns have been brought to the fore by controlling parents who want to more closely supervise their children and want to make the call themselves, the issues raised should make people think about what role kids themselves should have in these decisions.

Adults care for young children and make virtually all of their decisions for them.  This inherently hierarchical relationship is problematic from an anarchist perspective, but it is what it is.  So, if a caretaker is expected to do their best to protect their charge from harm, and immunizations appear likely to have more positive than negative effects on a child, it seems reasonable that a parent should be able to have a young child vaccinated, although they should not be forced to do so.  But this should apply only to vaccines that protect kids from infections they are likely to be harmed by when they are fairly young.

As individuals get older, more knowledgeable, and better able to make decisions and fend for themselves, it becomes easier to argue from an individual freedom perspective that they should have veto power over such treatments.  So administration of vaccines against things like HPV and hepatitis B (except in the case of an infected mother) should be deferred until kids are older so they can be involved in the decision-making themselves.  Such an approach would be a challenge to the conventional relationship between parents and children, which the state upholds by means of age-of-consent and         –majority laws, as well as compulsory schooling statutes, that limit the freedom of younger people to control their own bodies and lives.  But the anarchist demand for individual liberty is meant to apply to everyone, including kids, however uncomfortable that might be for certain adults.

Enlightened Self-Interest

         As noted in the last anchorage anarchy, people are not very good at accurately assessing risks, and this is part of the problem with discussing immunizations.  People exaggerate risks that are minimal or non-existent and ignore others that are quite real.  This is due to a combination of factors, including lack of knowledge, inability to critically evaluate scientific data, manipulation of this data by experts and bureaucrats, and religious or other superstition.  People end up making their decisions based on inadequate information, social pressure, and official threats.

This is not going to change until society in general changes in the direction of greater freedom for individuals.  This does not mean a world of atomization and anomie, but rather a society of free, leaderless people who respect their own and each others’ liberty and cooperate where and when necessary and desirable in order to meet their own needs and fulfill their own desires.  A key concept in making such a libertarian social network work is that of enlightened self-interest, or benevolence, whereby people voluntarily do things that help others but which do not necessarily benefit themselves at the time, in the expectation that other individuals will act accordingly in similar situations.  Such an approach would preserve individual freedom while allowing for cooperative and reciprocal social interactions.

Many of the vaccinations currently available appear to do more good than harm and would hopefully remain available in a different, anarchist world.  But just as immunization, like all else, would be voluntary were we free of authoritarian institutions, it should be voluntary now.  Just because an action is unwise or irrational, it should not be prohibited.  People must be free to refuse the needle, whether they fear autism or hellfire and brimstone.  It is their business and no one else’s.

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