Bioethics Blogs

Measles, Vaccination, and the Tragedy of the Commons

After having been virtually eliminated in the United States in the year 2000, measles have made a comeback, with nearly 150 cases in 17 states and nearly 30 confirmed cases of the illness in the Canadian provinces of Ontario, Quebec, and Manitoba.

Blame for the current measles outbreak has largely fallen on the “anti-vaxxers” and, more specifically, on parents who choose not to vaccinate their children against measles. In the U.S. and Canada, exemptions from mandated vaccines permit parents to opt out of vaccinating their children for medical, religious, or philosophical reasons. 

In the U.S., all states mandate certain vaccines for children attending schools, but most states allow exemptions for religious reasons, and 20 states allow exemptions for philosophical reasons. California recently introduced a bill that would prohibit all nonmedical exemptions. If it passes, California will join two other states with the same prohibition. North of the border, Ontario, New Brunswick, and Manitoba are the only Canadian provinces that mandate vaccinations for school children, and all allow exemptions for medical, religious, and philosophical reasons.

The Holy Grail in the vaccine world is to achieve “herd immunity,” the point at which the majority of a population is immune to a particular illness. Experts say that 90 percent to 95 percent of the population needs to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity. Herd immunity also helps protect vulnerable members of the population who cannot be vaccinated, such as infants and young children, and individuals with certain illnesses.

Once parents come to realize that vaccinating their children is the best defense against certain illnesses – and indeed in their child’s best interest – one would hope that parents would opt to vaccinate.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.