Viewpoints

Joe Mathews: If you won’t vaccinate your kid, your name should be made public

Sens. Richard Pan of Sacramento, at podium, and Ben Allen of Santa Monica, far left, introduced legislation last week to end California’s “personal belief” exemption from required childhood vaccinations.
Sens. Richard Pan of Sacramento, at podium, and Ben Allen of Santa Monica, far left, introduced legislation last week to end California’s “personal belief” exemption from required childhood vaccinations. rpench@sacbee.com

Shouldn’t we know where they live?

California’s measles outbreak has touched off a debate about how to tighten state laws that make it easy for parents to choose – in defiance of all credible public health information – not to vaccinate their children.

But the politics of reducing parental choice are fraught, and there are limits to the law’s ability to compel good parenting. There’s also cultural reality: Few things are more Californian than the freedom to believe whatever pseudo-religious or pseudo-scientific nonsense you choose. Whatever happens in the Legislature, parents will still find ways to avoid vaccinating their children.

So instead of targeting the choice of anti-vaccine parents, why not target the secrecy around that choice?

Under today’s privacy laws, authorities must protect the identity of parents who choose not to vaccinate. That’s wrong. Parents who endanger the community’s health don’t deserve official protection. And the confidentiality of such exemptions makes it harder for communities to protect themselves.

Put simply, a parent who won’t vaccinate is making a public health decision that profoundly affects others. So let’s treat the exemption as the public act it is, and make each exempt parent’s name and address available on the Internet via a public registry.

The virtues of disclosure are clear. Having your family’s name published as a potential hazard to public health would be a powerful incentive for many anti-vaxxers to change their minds. And the rest of us would be able to identify our unvaccinated neighbors. This would be especially helpful to pregnant women and the parents of children too young to be vaccinated or with illnesses that compromise immune systems and preclude vaccination.

There would be some risk of conflict in this shift; harassment must not be tolerated. But there would also be potential for the kind of conversations necessary to change minds and get more children vaccinated. Those who have studied the question of how to persuade people to vaccinate report that neighbors, friends and co-workers often make better emissaries to the unvaccinated than government or health authorities. But you can only be an emissary to people if you know they are unvaccinated.

Some anti-vaxxers may protest, but such objections are easily turned against them. If you believe you can make any decision you want for your child, why would you deny me the right to decide whether my children play in the homes of people who recklessly opt out of modernity?

This issue is personal. My own children are still little, and it will be a few more years before all three are old enough to have all their vaccinations. It bothers me that, according to media-compiled data on vaccine exemptions, three of the 95 kids who attend kindergarten with my oldest son are unvaccinated because their parents have obtained personal belief exemptions.

I should have the right to know who those families are. And I look forward to the day when I can engage them in conversation about what we owe each other.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor at Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.

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