Improving immunization rates – what can the Law do? 

vaccine hate debate

Many of us are concerned at the rise of cases of preventable diseases and the role played in that by the decision by a minority of parents not to vaccinate their children. One question is what, if any, effects would legal tool have on improving immunization rates? This article attempts to map out the available tools.

Note that the focus of this article is what the law can do, not what the law should do. The fact that a legal tool is available – i.e. Constitutional, can be enacted or used by the courts – doesn’t automatically mean it should be. I would, in fact, argue that some of the tools discussed here shouldn’t be used in the context of immunization – in most circumstances, forced vaccination and criminal law are inappropriate. But mapping out what’s available seems like a useful first step in the discussion of what the law should do. The goal of this post is to provide a menu of options and a more or less logical way to classify them. My hope is that setting out what’s possible would help us think through what is desirable.

 

Continue reading “Improving immunization rates – what can the Law do? “

Hobby Lobby and religious exemptions – good, bad and ugly

In the recent Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. (Hobby Lobby) decision, a majority of the Supreme Court ruled that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)’s requirement that qualifying employer health plans under the the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) include coverage for all FDA approve contraceptives cannot be applied to at least certain corporations stating religious objections.

The Court found that the regulations violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA)’s prohibition on burdening exercise of religion. The majority made every effort to make that decision narrow as possible – but it still has concerning implications for the future, and Justice Ginsburg’s ringing dissent raises very important questions.

When the Skeptical Raptor asked me to write about this decision, we intended that I would discuss Hobby Lobby and religious exemptions for vaccines. But this decision is too important to stop there, so while I also address the vaccination aspect, my discussion is about the decision generally.

From my point of view – as a secular individual who believes reproductive freedom is crucial to women’s equality – the decision has some positives, but also much to be concerned about (I hope the analysis will also be useful to those whose views are different from mine, however). It’s not, however, a decision that turns the United States into a theocracy, as some of the more impassioned posts I’ve seen on Facebook suggest. In some ways, actually, just the opposite.

Continue reading “Hobby Lobby and religious exemptions – good, bad and ugly”

Allowing teenagers to choose HPV vaccines – constitutional

It is morally painful when anti-vaccine sentiment goes so far as to put children at risk of disability, suffering and death. But, that is exactly what a letter written by North Carolina attorney and vaccine critic Alan G. Phillips would do. The problem is that in laying out his case against the enactment of legislation that would protect the health and well being of adolescents in New York State he fails to make one.

The New York assembly is considering A497, a bill that would allow adolescents to receive treatment – including allowing teenagers to choose HPV vaccines for prevention of those infections – against a sexually transmitted disease without their parents’ or guardians’ knowledge or consent. The goal is clearly a laudable one; to insure teenagers don’t leave themselves at risk of sexually transmitted diseases or neglect treating one because they are worried about their parents’ reaction.

Or, sadly, in some instances, because they fear seeking permission to get vaccinated from a parent or family member who may be sexually abusing them. By allowing adolescents to consent to vaccines or other treatment on their own, the bill minimizes the potential for serious harm such as liver cancer (from Hepatitis B), anal cancers or cervical cancer (from HPV infections).

Several other states have passed such laws. They are consistent with long-established laws granting greater decision-making authority to minors with regard to reproductive health and contraception. Phillips disagrees. He sent a letter to NY State legislators arguing that the bill violates federal and state laws and should not be enacted. Not so. Here is why. Contrary to his claims: Continue reading “Allowing teenagers to choose HPV vaccines – constitutional”

Court upholds policy denying religious exemption to vaccines

Last week the Federal District Court of the Eastern District of New York rejected a claim brought by three plaintiff families against various aspects of New York’s school immunization requirements. The decision did not include any legal innovation: it was completely based on well-established precedent that schools can deny a religious exemption to vaccines. But it offers a chance to reflect on what that precedent is, why it is in place, and what it means for us.

The take-home point? Our immunization jurisprudence gives states substantial leeway to protect the public health via vaccination requirements, specifically, in this context, by allowing states to decide whether, and under what conditions, to exempt students from school immunization requirements. But states have to actually use that power to achieve anything. By leaving the floor to the passionate, if passionately wrong, anti-vaccine minority, we are allowing them to undermine the right of the rest of us to be free from preventable diseases.

In other words, those who vaccinate need to speak up and make it clear to their elected representatives that they want state law to protect their children – and the community – against outbreaks of preventable diseases. The laws will not enact themselves, and our representatives need to know the public wants this protection, that the public does not want high rates of measles cases or other diseases.

Just like the diseases, anti-vaccine legislative successes are preventable. And just like the diseases, doing nothing won’t prevent them.  Continue reading “Court upholds policy denying religious exemption to vaccines”

Health Care Workers, Flu Vaccines, and Work Place Discrimination

In a previous post, I described a New Jersey Court of Appeals case in which Ms. Valent was denied unemployment benefits because she refused flu vaccines without claiming the religious exemption. I explained that the hospital was not constitutionally required to provide a religious exemption, and that doing so was a losing proposition from a hospital’s point of view.

In the comments following that post, it was correctly pointed out to me that there is another claim I should have addressed: a claim that the hospital was required to provide a religious exemption under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This did not come up in the case itself: the court reinstated the nurse’s unemployment benefits on constitutional grounds, though problematic constitutional grounds. But since I argue that hospitals should not offer a religious exemption, I need to address whether the hospital is required, under Title VII, to offer an accommodation.  Continue reading “Health Care Workers, Flu Vaccines, and Work Place Discrimination”

No faith – healthcare workers, vaccines and religion

June Valent started working for Hackettstown Community Hospital, New Jersey, in 2009. In 2010, the hospital adopted a policy requiring workers to be vaccinated against influenza, unless “there [was] a documented medical or religious exemption. For those with an exemption, a declination form must be signed and accompanied with an appropriate note each year.” An employee claiming a religious exemption just has to sign a form and bring a note from a religious leader. Employees using an exemption were required to wear a mask.

To her credit, Ms. Valent was unwilling to pretend her reasons for refusing the vaccine were religious. Less to her credit, she refused to be vaccinated, even though she had no medical reason, and vaccinating would reduce her chances of contracting influenza and transmitting it to her vulnerable patients. She did agree to wear a facemask, as any vaccine exempt worker would.

The hospital fired Ms. Valent for violating the policy. The issue under consideration was whether she was entitled to unemployment benefits. Under New Jersey law, an employer may deny unemployment benefits if the employee engaged in misconduct, which includes violating a reasonable rule of the employer. After somewhat complex proceedings, the Appeal Tribunal of the Board Of Review of the Department Of Labor decided to deny her the benefits because the employer’s requirements were “not unreasonable.” Continue reading “No faith – healthcare workers, vaccines and religion”

Recouping costs of vaccine preventable disease outbreaks

We all know that outbreaks of preventable diseases cause (unnecessary) suffering and potentially devastating harms. This blog has a whole series dedicated to showing how vaccines save lives (examples here, here, here, here, and here).

But besides those harms, outbreaks also have direct monetary costs. They cost individuals money, when those people have to miss work or pay for medications, co-pays or costs associated with caring for a sick child or other family member harmed by a disease. Outbreaks also impose costs on health insurers covering the (often very high) costs of treating a preventable disease; and they impose costs on the public purse. Public health authorities have  to contain the outbreak. If people depend on a public health insurance program, their health costs are also covered by the public. Public funding is limited. When agencies have to spend money on containing outbreaks, they are not using the money in other ways. As a result, other services and needs suffer.

Our paper argues that those whose decision not to vaccinate caused an outbreak should pay for the costs to public agencies of the outbreak. It then suggests options for achieving that goal. The blog post proceeds in three parts that shortly summarize the paper’s arguments: highlighting the costs of outbreaks, explaining the justifications for imposing costs of those who do not vaccinate, and mentioning how costs can be recovered. Continue reading “Recouping costs of vaccine preventable disease outbreaks”

The false ideology of science deniers–research is easy

tyson-science-trueA few days ago, a fellow pro-science person was concerned about a tweet she received. Her antagonist was claiming that if my friend had all that time to tweet, then she obviously wasn’t working in academics as she claimed.

I have a Twitter feed that flies across the top right corner of my screen. I have over 1200 followers, and I follow the tweets well over that number. I have varied interests, but to be honest, there are too many tweets. I only respond or retweet things I happen to see when I look up to that upper right corner of my computer’s screen. I know I miss some good stuff. But I think I find a few dozen every day that lead me to read news articles or peer-reviewed journals. Occasionally, I run across a Tweet that makes me laugh or think.

Yes it takes time, but from the moment I wake up until I go to bed, I’m reading, writing, texting/messaging other scientists for ideas. We discuss books we’ve read. All of us in science writing work very hard to get where we are, which cause an epiphany bout the science deniers. I have a theory about their behavior and dismissal of science. I cannot be sure it applies to everyone; for example, there are some seriously deranged people who blame everything in science on Reptilians, Illuminati, Jews, and the US Government (run by Jews I suppose). There’s no logic with those types. Continue reading “The false ideology of science deniers–research is easy”

Parents, children, loss of custody and immunization

This article uses the very recent decision of the Supreme Court of Oregon in Department of Human Services v. S.M. (pdf) to discuss a specific question: if parents lose custody of their children, can they still refuse immunizations? The Oregon Supreme Court joins others in saying that the answer is no. As discussed, this is the right result.

Loss of custody and immunization is a key issue of parental rights on several levels. Let’s discuss the case in Oregon in detail

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Anti-vaccine claims, misrepresentation and free speech

Imagine the following scenarios:

  1. A mother comments on an anti-vaccine Facebook page belonging to a Doctor known for her opposition to vaccines, saying that she is about to travel to a third world country for which the CDC recommends certain vaccines. She asks what vaccines, if any, she should get for her unvaccinated eight-months old. The doctor responds with “none; these countries are perfectly safe, there’s no higher risk there”.
  2. Another mother comments on the same Facebook page saying that a dog bit her daughter. She asks whether she should, in this case, get the rabies vaccine or tetanus vaccines. The doctor recommends against it, deviating from the standard of care.
  3. An anti-vaccine organization publishes an article describing measles as a “mild childhood disease,” potentially beneficial to the immune system and repeating the debunked claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism. It encourages readers not to vaccinate.
  4. An anti-vaccine doctor records a video recommending that citizens in a country that had polio discovered in the sewers avoid getting the Oral Polio Vaccine, as their Ministry of Health recommends. The doctor claims that: 1) Polio is not generally dangerous, and the polio epidemics in the United States were caused by use of DDT, 2) the polio vaccine is more dangerous than polio itself, or 3) vitamin C can prevent or treat polio.
  5. These claims are demonstrably false.
  6. An anti-vaccine site has an article suggesting that tetanus is not usually dangerous and can be prevented by letting wounds bleed and cleaning them with hydrogen peroxide.

Continue reading “Anti-vaccine claims, misrepresentation and free speech”