On Wednesday, November 18, the Hawaii County Council will again consider Resolution 237-09, providing exemptions from vaccinations. At the core of this resolution opposing mandatory vaccinations is a deep sense of distrust — distrust of Federal and State governments that may want to impose their will on the public, as well as distrust of the pharmaceutical industry and its vaccination products and research.
Distrust is a major social disease of our time. The root cause is that we are a society that puts money before people. This is as true for medicine as it is for politics. Years of abuse of the sacred trust the people place in their leaders has lead to our current state of distrust.
It seems strange that the County Council is addressing the issue of mandatory vaccinations, which is typically a federal and state government concern. However, it makes sense when you consider that this is the smallest governmental body in our system. It consists of councilmembers who are our neighbors and friends. This makes the County Council the most accessible and responsive to our individual concerns.
So I understand why this resolution is being brought to the County Council. And I also understand why it is important that the Council support this resolution. The people need some assurances that they are being heard, that they can trust government at least on this local level.
The County Council may be small, and its decisions may seem trivial on the state and national levels. But it is the closest the government ever gets to hearing and responding to the voice of the people. In this sense, the County Council is the most important governmental body we have. It is here that our trust in government and authority can be mended.
As for the issue of getting vaccinated against disease, flu or otherwise, all medical treatment should be at the discretion of the individual. It is our most basic freedom to make decisions about what goes into our bodies.
However, the government does serve a legitimate function in preventing and controlling
infectious disease epidemics. We live in a time when few, if any, of us experienced the horrors of smallpox, polio, Bubonic plague, and other killer diseases. Quarantine is a common practice to stop the spread of these diseases. I have also been told by military personnel of villages in Africa being bombed to stop the spread of Ebola virus.
Vaccination is another method for controlling some diseases.
While vaccines all have potential adverse side effects and vaccination programs always result in some unintended injuries and even deaths, public health officials consider these costs worth the benefits. Public health officials consider society as a whole. People, to them, are statistics. And like generals conducting a war, these healthcare warriors fighting an infectious disease are willing to accept civilian casualties if it means winning the war, which, to them, means most of the public survives the epidemic.
To those individuals and their families who become the casualties of that war, however, the cost is dear, sometimes too dear for them to accept. Vaccinations may help society as a whole, but it could harm some individuals who otherwise may have survived.
This is the conflict between public healthcare and private healthcare. Our government officials focus on society as a whole, while we the people focus on ourselves and our families. Unfortunately, what is good for the whole may not be good for us as individuals, and vice versa.
As a society based on individual freedom and an inalienable right to life and liberty, the thought of forced vaccinations is abhorrent. That is why current laws have respected the right of individuals to refuse vaccinations. However, if someone spreads a deadly disease to others, we no longer can be regarded as individuals, but as members of a social group. At that point, what’s good for the group could outweigh the choices of any one individual.
Again, this abrogation of individual freedom is only justified in extreme life-threatening situations. At those times, quarantine and vaccination are appropriate. We must accept some loss of personal freedom when at war, whether that enemy is human or microbial.
That is why we need to trust our leaders. When they declare war, they take away some of our freedom. However, this is a power that can, and has been, abused. We no longer trust our leaders to give us the full, honest story.
When is it time to declare a health emergency and declare war on a disease? The answer to that depends on your point of view. To the drug industry, government purchases of vaccine and treatment drugs is an economic boon. And given the fact that the current swine flu epidemic is no more deadly than the regular flu, the worldwide rush for vaccines seems more like an economic stimulus plan for the pharmaceutical industry than anything else. However, people will die from the swine flu, and from the seasonal flu. Does that make this an emergency, worthy of forced vaccinations or quarantine?
I propose the following answer. If people are debating the severity of a communicable disease, then it is not severe enough to warrant intrusion into personal freedom with mandatory vaccines or quarantine. If people were dying in the streets from a new plague, and everyone was afraid to go outside for fear of contracting it, then there would be no debate. The war would be real, and people would know it and comply with the strategies used to fight it.
I do not believe this is a time for such a war. And since the state and federal governments are not forcing this swine flu vaccine on the public, clearly they agree.
Why, then, vote to support this resolution? It is because it is a resolution to respect the rights of the people to be individuals, and not some statistic of a public health official. As a resolution, it has the weight of conscience, not law. But it is this conscience of respect for individuals that needs to be reaffirmed. It will not impair the ability of state and federal health officials to protect us in times of war. It will just tell the authorities that we care about our individual freedom, and that we will not easily give up our personal sovereignty without just cause.
‘Sydney Ross Singer is a Medical Anthropologist and a director of the Institute for the Study of Culturogenic Disease in Pahoa, Hawaii’