The Lives Vaccines Save

Ronald Bailey explains why libertarians should not support the right of vaccine refuseniks to put the rest of us at risk:

People who don’t wish to take responsibility for their contagious microbes will often try to justify their position by noting the fact that the mortality rates of many infectious diseases had declined significantly before vaccines came along. And it is certainly true that a lot of that decline in infectious disease mortality occurred as a result of improved sanitation and water chlorination. A 2004 study by the Harvard University economist David Cutler and the National Bureau of Economic Research economist Grant Miller estimated that the provision of clean water “was responsible for nearly half of the total mortality reduction in major cities, three-quarters of the infant mortality reduction, and nearly two-thirds of the child mortality reduction.” Improved nutrition also reduced mortality rates, enabling infants, children, and adults to fight off diseases that would have more likely killed their malnourished ancestors.

But vaccines have played a substantial role in reducing death rates too.

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared the annual average number of cases and resulting deaths of various diseases before the advent of vaccines to those occurring in 2006. Before an effective diphtheria vaccine was developed, for example, there were about 21,000 cases of the disease each year, 1,800 of them leading to death. No cases or deaths from the disease were recorded in 2006. Measles averaged 530,000 cases and 440 deaths per year before the vaccine. In 2006, there were 55 cases and no deaths. Whooping cough saw around 200,000 cases and 4,000 deaths annually. In 2006, there were nearly 16,000 cases and 27 deaths. Polio once averaged around 16,000 cases and 1,900 deaths. No cases were recorded in 2006. The number of Rubella cases dropped from 48,000 to 17, and the number of deaths dropped from 17 to zero.

His bottom line:

Oliver Wendell Holmes articulated a good libertarian principle when he said, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins”… To borrow Holmes’ metaphor, people who refuse vaccination are asserting that they have a right to “swing” their microbes at other people.

Last week, Alexandra Sifferlin slammed Katie Couric for lending credence to vaccine fear-mongering after she hosted opponents of the HPV vaccine on her daytime talk show:

The two HPV vaccines currently available, Gardasil and Cervarix, are both proven safe through clinical trials, independent studies, and post licensure monitoring. The CDC and FDA also continue to track the vaccines’ safety. And yet Couric has framed the issue as if there were a debate to be had about whether the HPV vaccines are good for the public’s health.

“This kind of coverage is so incredibly irresponsible,” says Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus: The True Story Behind the Vaccine-Autism Controversy. “The danger of saying we are going to present both sides of an issue, when all of the facts line up on one side, is that as far as the audience is concerned, you are giving these sides equal weight. It presents a false impression that there is a legitimate debate here.”