San Diego Measles Outbreak: Should parents be compelled to vaccinate their children?

This American Life has a very interesting show about the San Diego measles outbreak.  Outbreaks decades ago were due to the fact that poor individuals often could not afford to get vaccinated or see a doctor.  Now, this is not a problem since vaccines are generally made available for free for those who cannot pay.  It was rich parents in San Diego who did not get their child vaccinated.

Most parents who do not get their child vaccinated fail to do so because they are worried about the side effects. An 1998 article in the journal Lancet claimed that there was a connection between between MMR vaccination and autism; however, this claim has been refuted and the article has been retracted.  Still, I do sympathize somewhat with these parents.  Even if there is no scientific evidence that vaccination and autism are linked, I understand the parents concern.  Further, I am sympathetic to the attitude that you shouldn’t always just do what people tell you.  However…

The story also shows the side effects of what happens when all kids aren’t vaccinated.  This American Life recounts the story of parents who’s child got the measles.  Most kids receive the MMR vaccine around 1 year of age, so babies younger than twelve months are susceptible to the disease.  The parents recount their harrowing tale of how they help their child in their arms for hours at a time, afraid if they led him lay down his heart would stop beating.  They said that they could not comment in any vaccination related debate since they would become so enraged at the individuals who did not vaccinate that they would lose their friendship.

Overall, I believe that it is right to compel parents to vaccinate their children.  Even if vaccinating would confer some small risk to individual children, the overall benefit to society from the reduction in contagious diseases far outweighs the individual costs.

This American Life Synoposis: “When they decided not to vaccinate their son against measles, two San Diego parents thought they were making the best decision for their child. But when the 7-year-old came home from an overseas trip suffering from the disease (pictured at left: measles virus), his family’s personal decision became a whole community’s problem. The resulting outbreak infected 11 children and endangered many others.


  1. Even if there is no scientific evidence that vaccination and autism are linked, I understand the parents concern.

    Like when people think they hear voices telling them to kill someone? What do you mean you understand their “concern” based on absolutely no evidence, that leads to an action that risks other people’s lives?

    Their “concern” is a symptom of an environment that allows their pride and egotism to go so unchecked they can’t accept that perhaps experts do exist that know more about something than they do. It’s no accident that this disproportionately affects the rich, when everything works out for people they tend to attribute it to their actions, which leads to pride, which leads to discounting the views and knowledge of others etc…

    There’s no need to sugar coat it, people are making a decision, contrary to all evidence, that will probably end up killing innocent people.

  2. I’m vaguely surprised that the parents of children who were clearly made ill by the unvaccinated child have not sued the living crap out of that child’s parents. Seriously, how different is this from, for example, saying, oh, this precariously perched load of bricks at my construction site won’t fall and injure passersby.

  3. How are their actions different from someone who precariously balances a heap of bricks on a ledge? People injured by the falling bricks would sue the living crap out of him. How come there haven’t been lawsuits in supposedly lawsuit-happy America due to these anti-vaccination people?

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