NY Senate Proposal Gives Teens Agency in Vaccine Decisions

Public health officials and advocates have long decried studies which link vaccines and autism. For background on the troubling impacts that vaccine conspiracies have on children’s health, see CHIL’s blog post from last month. Recently in New York, one student with measles infected at least 21 others with the disease, reigniting vaccine campaigns. Advocates have been encouraging everyone to get vaccinated and discrediting the arguments of their anti-vaccination opponents.

Moreover, relevant industries beyond the field of public health are getting involved. Amazon, for example, is halting the sale of books which back autism cures and falsehoods about vaccines. New York lawmakers, too, are getting involved by proposing a bill which would allow teenagers to obtain vaccinations without parental consent.

If passed, the legislation would stipulate that minors over 14 years old may be given vaccines and boosters for prevention of diseases like mumps, diphtheria, influenza, hepatitis B, and more. Proponents say at 14, teens are mature enough to make vaccination decisions for themselves and may even be better at identifying vaccines misinformation often circulated on online platforms. This is an important measure for minors with parents prejudiced against vaccines, and also for those without active adult figures in their lives.

While supporters recognize parents have certain authority over decisions impacting their children’s health care, the decision to get vaccinated extends beyond an individual child’s health. That is, unvaccinated children put both themselves and others in their communities at risk for infection. Those ineligible for vaccines due to special medical circumstances become particularly vulnerable when more and more people around them remain unvaccinated by choice. Proposals like this one utilize our legal system to prioritize broader public health goals for people of all ages.

Vaccines: Back in the Spotlight

A blog such as ours that focuses on children’s health can’t neglect discussing vaccinations. This is especially true given the fact that diseases that were once effectively eliminated are re-emerging as major threats to children’s health. The New York Times has reported on an outbreak of measles - a disease that has the potential for deadly and debilitating complications - in a suburb of Portland, Oregon. Oregon has one of the most flexible policies that allow parents to opt out of vaccinating their children for various reasons.

All states allow parents to opt out for medical reasons, and most also permit religious reasons. However, the states that allow exemptions for “personal” or “philosophical” reasons leave room for debunked conspiracy theories to threaten the health of children in schools or public places. The NYT reports that multiple studies published in multiple leading medical journals have proven that there is no link between vaccines and conditions like autism, even among children who might be at higher risk of having the disorder (e.g. children with a sibling with autism.)

The question of vaccination is probably unique in that its benefits may not be immediately obvious. After all, an infant receiving multiple vaccinations according to the widely-approved schedule will not seem to be at obvious risk for those diseases. However, as children grow and encounter new environments, it is essential that they are well-equipped to thrive in them.  

Vaccine science has come so far since the first inoculation of a patient against a form of smallpox. In the present day, to make outbreaks of preventable disease “the new normal” (as one doctor put it) would be a huge step backward for medicine and for society’s commitment to children’s well-being.

The Flu Vaccine is Back!

It’s flu season again. Each fall, public health officials, doctors, and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) urge Americans to get their flu shots in time for the winter. This week, we will discuss one of the best preventive measures we can take to fight against the flu.

Flu shots are the best way to safeguard children against the spread of the flu virus, according to a recent article on NPR. However, doctors interviewed in the article contend that the flu is underestimated even though it leads to more hospitalizations and deaths among children than any other diseases preventable by vaccinations. And yet, about a third of children in the U.S. are not getting vaccinated because parents either deem flu shots unnecessary or they believe that flu vaccines actually causes their child to become ill with the flu. However, these preconceived notions are untrue.

  1. There are greater implications to flu shots than parents realize. Children in school spend most of their time in classrooms with other children, and the likelihood that at least some of them are ill during the winter is quite high. Vaccines greatly reduce this risk. They are commonly used as examples in classes that teach about positive externalities - all members of society benefit from them in addition to the original individual that received the vaccine. Of course, relying on someone else to be vaccinated and flu-free to ensure one’s own health for an entire season is a risky bet to take.
  2. With regard to the second point, there are many respiratory viruses and colds that circulate in the fall around the time that flu vaccines may be administered, which leads parents to mistakenly assume a causal relationship between the vaccine and a child’s brief illness. However, according to a doctor interviewed in the NPR article, the timing of the flu shot and the “flu symptoms” are coincidental - a child is likely showing symptoms for a different infection altogether. Vaccines are made up of inactive parts of a virus that stimulate an immune response, but do not cause the flu virus to be reconstructed or activated inside the body to make us sick.

Historically, the flu has been a devastating disease, especially for children. We are lucky that modern medicine has reduced it to little more than an annual nuisance, but we must still take care to provide the youngest members of society with the means to fight off infections. The CDC publishes an up-to-date, informative page that explains the different types of flu vaccines available, as well as where to obtain them.  

For the transcript of Dr. Schaffner’s visit on NPR, click here.