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Vaccination decisions must be made with informed conscience

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U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy visited Cincinnati as part of a national tour, discussing a variety of issues during a stop in Norwood in February. (CT Photo/John Stegeman)

By John Stegeman
The Catholic Telegraph

In the year 2000, the United States declared the measles virus eradicated from the country. In 2015, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 140 people from 17 states have been infected with the illness. The primary reason for the disease’s resurgence is a lack of vaccinations.

Mainstream medicine in the U.S. prescribes a routine course of vaccinations for all children beginning at birth through age 6. Youths are given vaccinations as protection against a dozen serious ailments but for a variety of reasons, some parents refuse vaccination. With celebrities and politicians often weighing in on the issue, vaccination has become a hot topic of discussion.

The debate caused U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy to weigh in during a Feb. 10 visit to Cincinnati. “My message to all parents is to please vaccinate your children,” he said. “It is the best way to protect them and to protect others in the community.”

Murthy, the top health official in the country, pointed out Ohio has one of the lowest rates for vaccination against measles in the U.S., tied for last with West Virginia.

“It is so important for us to get accurate information into the hands of parents so they understand that the measles vaccine is safe and effective,” he said. “Measles is a highly contagious disease. It might be one of the most contagious viruses that we know of.”

Murthy’s concerns are echoed by the local health community. Dr. Suzanne Lekson, a pediatrician with Mercy Health said the question of whether vaccines are safe and effective are, “Yes, and yes.”

“Some of them are in the 80s (percent of effectiveness), a couple only in the 70s,” she said. “For most of the childhood vaccines they’re in the 90th percent (of effectiveness). So that means not every child who is vaccinated will have full immunity, but almost pushing 100 percent get at least some immunity.”

Lekson added that concerns about mercury, strange side effects or autism links related to vaccines have been repeatedly debunked.

“As far as serious things, they are so incredibly rare,” Lekson said. “Safety is a paramount concern with the decision to include a vaccine in the routine series… The medical community is very watchful about that. We don’t want to be causing any harm through vaccinations.”

Lekson said mild side effects such as fussiness, tenderness around the injection site and redness can occur.

“I’ve had to report a couple of times a high fever through the vaccine adverse event reporting system, but that’s been the worst of anything,” she added.

Non-medical objections to certain vaccines are also becoming more common. Two cell lines used in the development of vaccines were derived from aborted babies more than 50 years ago. Lekson said the cell lines are prevalent in childhood vaccines.

Aware that Catholics must be mindful of any material cooperation in evil acts, the Pontifical Academy for Life and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have stated that Catholics do not need to refuse these vaccines in situations where no alternative exists.

According to Lekson, no safe alternatives are available.

“When we say that refusing to use a vaccine is not obligatory, that is another way of saying that one may choose to use the vaccine without committing sin,” said Father Earl Fernandes, assistant professor for Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary. “That is, some parents may choose to use the vaccines. Others, however, for perfectly legitimate reasons, may choose to refuse to use the vaccine. There is a prudential judgment that has to be made.”

While such a decision may come down to prudential judgement, Father Fernandes stressed that decisions must be made with facts.

“When you make a judgment in conscience, it ought to be a reasonable judgment. You have to take into account, for example, what science and reason say,” he said. “If you’re making your decisions based on bad science or if you haven’t done your due diligence in researching the problem… that’s not a decision made with an informed conscience.”

The moral concerns don’t stop with the individual, however. One of the benefits of widespread vaccination is so-called “herd immunity.” According to Lekson, when 92 percent of a population or above are vaccinated, even those who are not are protected because the diseases cannot gain a foothold. Failure to vaccinate one’s children then can have an effect on others.

“There is a subset of people who because their systems are compromised or are infants or… a variety of reasons cannot be immunized,” Lekson said. Those people rely on the rest of us to be safe and protected so we aren’t carrying infections around them.”

Steve Squires, an ethicist with Mercy Health and a parishioner at Good Shepherd in Montgomery, said balance is important when considering parental rights with public health.

“We can start with obviously parents do have the right to decide the best interests of their children,” he said. “One way ethically we can look at it is the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule says let’s treat others the way we want to be treated. If we consider, for instance, the possibility offensive that a parent would choose to not vaccinate, and even unknowingly bring a sick child to school or day care or gymnastics, then it shouldn’t surprise us that others would be upset at us for the same thing.”

For a parent weighing the decision of vaccinating their child the medical, ethical and moral concerns should all factor into the equation.

“Parents have a responsibility to provide for and protect the health of their children,” Father Fernandes said. “Parents also ought to consider the common good. A Catholic, in his or her conscience, ought to evaluate, using reason, the scientific evidence available. A Catholic continues to inform his or her conscience by also looking at scripture and what the church has to say, and human experience…We need to pray to God for the virtue of prudence to help make the best decision.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.

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