Common Ground in the Vaccine Wars

Posted: Feb 11, 2015 12:01 AM

One of the best ways to torch your comment feed on social media is to post something about vaccines. But I believe common ground can exist on this issue—if people care more about solutions than about demonizing their opponents.

Despite apparent disagreement over whether vaccines should be mandatory or voluntary (and the usual failure even to define those terms), most people desire an increased immunization rate. To actually achieve that goal, we need to know why different groups have lower vaccination rates, even if we don’t agree with their reasons.

Lower vaccination rates have been identified in some Amish communities, in pockets of particularly low-income people, and among those of high education and income.

The latter group, the “anti-vaxxers,” garners the most attention. Even among them, however, their objections vary. Much anti-vaxx opposition is focused on the combined measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR), a Merck product that is the only measles vaccine available in the United States. No amount of data or studies can dislodge their fear of MMR.

Distinctly, some pro-life people don’t want vaccines that were derived from the cells of aborted children. This includes MMR, vaccines for hepatitis A, and several others. A 2005 Vatican document insisted there is a “grave responsibility to use alternative[s]” to such vaccines, even while their use might be individually permissible.

This presents an obvious common-ground solution that would at least improve immunization rates among many objectors. Let the market sell them more vaccines, including a measles vaccine other than MMR.

Many pro-life people and anti-vaxxers would vaccinate themselves and their children from measles—and want to do so—if they could use the separate measles vaccine instead of MMR.

The main obstacle to their immunization is neither education nor science: it is federal bureaucracy.

The Food and Drug Administration has licensed separate vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella, and they were used in the U.S. until 2009. But it only gave the license to Merck, which has decided to produce only MMR.

The CDC’s stated reason for agreeing with this approach was to facilitate immunization because people would need fewer shots. But this rationale is now backfiring, since many people specifically object to the combined formula.

Moreover, Japan widely uses a mumps vaccine and a separate one for measles and rubella, neither of which are derived from abortions. But the FDA has consistently refused to allow American patients to import those vaccines as an alternative to MMR. The regulatory obstacles to getting all-new approval to sell them here have been likewise prohibitive.

Congress could fix this problem with the free market. Why should safe vaccines languish when they were produced here through 2009 and are used responsibly in places like Japan today? Congress could streamline licensing so that other vaccine manufacturers can produce the monovalent measles vaccine already licensed here. And it could approve Japan’s measles/rubella and mumps vaccines for sale here, along with other non-abortion derived vaccines.

This would be a win-win solution. Many vaccine objections would be overcome and immunization rates would go up, while letting the states continue to decide when vaccines are mandated. Politicians supporting these reforms could show they are pro-immunization, pro-free-market, or both, and public health experts ought to rejoice over increased immunization access.

The only losers in this fix would be commentators who would rather beat anti-vaxxers to death rhetorically than actually increase their immunization rates. But if we’re really in an infectious disease crisis, we should put aside pure polemics and be willing to do what it takes to provide vaccines that people want.

Congress should liberate the vaccine market.