Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Compulsory vaccination and the national emergency state 

As measles once more becomes a real threat in Britain, calls to make MMR vaccinations compulsory are to come before the BMA for debate.

Liberals I am sure will be instinctively wary of such a move, which would be backed by sanctions such as exclusion from school for unvaccinated children and possibly loss of benefits for parents.

We do need to tackle the problems of assuring ‘herd immunity’ in a society of individuals. I suspect we will be unhappy at the compulsion approach though.

There is a history to this kind of move. For example, when I went up to University in 1967 all entrants were screened for TB with X-Ray vans on campus for registration week, and nobody could take up a place without proving either immunity or vaccination status.

Looking elsewhere, there is a passage in the wonderful book by Lewis Thomas (about the changes in medical practice during his long career as an immunologist) discussing the draconian powers of the New York City Quarantine Board. When Thomas served on that board in the 1970’s (I think) it could declare a medical emergency and order people to be isolated, more or less internment without trial or appeal. The most heartbreaking part involved the regulations on Children. If a child was found to have diphtheria for example not only would it be isolated with very limited contact with other people, but all its toys would be destroyed.

As Swine Flu puts our current attitudes and practices to the test perhaps Liberals need to think how best to approach the pressures for collective sanctions on individual sick people, which is what such programmes effectively involve.

Book reference: Lewis Thomas ‘The Youngest Science notes of a medicine watcher’. Seriously, if you have a chance, do have a look at this moving and deeply humane book which, with its profound love and respect for people as individuals, is a testimony to real Liberalism as well as the scientific life.

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