Who Owns Your Body?
If you think the U.S. Constitution guarantees its citizens the right to refuse a compulsory vaccination program, think again. It never has. Mandatory vaccination laws date back to 1809, giving states and municipalities the right to enforce compulsory vaccination under police powers, which are designed to protect the public health and safety. Children are required to be vaccinated to attend day care centers and schools, young adults are required to show proof of vaccinations to attend college, and soldiers must submit to vaccinations required by the military.1
Currently exemptions are allowed for medical and religious reasons. Some states allow exemptions for philosophical or moral convictions. But what will happen if we face a public health emergency—real or contrived? The governor, the state board of health, or the state health officer may expand compulsory vaccinations for children and adults in response to bioterrorism or a pandemic and can choose to levy fines and/or force quarantine for those who refuse.
On June 11, 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised the flu pandemic alert for the influenza A virus H1N1 (called Swine Flu) to a level 6, the highest level. WHO’s July 6th update reports 94,512 laboratory confirmed cases and 429 deaths worldwide. The United States of America reports the highest number of cases with a total of 33,902 laboratory confirmed cases and 170 deaths. To clearly see the increase rate, compare these numbers to the CDC’s July 24th update report of 43,771 cases of novel H1N1 in the United States and 302 reported deaths. 2
Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO’s Director General,reports, “…the overwhelming majority of patients experience mild symptoms and make a rapid and full recovery, often in the absence of any form of medical treatment.” So far, the pandemic is of moderate severity, though this could change. “The virus writes the rules and this one, like all influenza viruses, can change the rules, without rhyme or reason, at any time.” Severity can also vary from one country to another due to many factors.
Though most of the severe and fatal infections were reported from adults 30-50 years of age, the majority of cases in areas of “large and sustained outbreaks” have occurred in people under 25. Dr. Chan warns we are still in the early stages of this pandemic and that countries who have seen a peak in cases should prepare for a second wave. She also states, “I understand that production of vaccines for seasonal influenza will be completed soon, and that full capacity will be available to ensure the largest possible supply of pandemic vaccine in the months to come.” 3
Influenza pandemics can indeed result in widespread morbidity and fatalities. We have only to look back to the pandemic of 1918-1919, the Spanish Flu, which infected one-third of the world’s population and killed 50 million of the approximately 500 million it infected.4 (Wikipedia and the CDC 5 state that the number of deaths could have actually been as high as 100 million). Many died within hours of their first flu symptoms from virulent pneumonia. The Spanish flu was a H1N1 Influenza A subtype, as is the current Swine Flu (or novel H1N1),4 though the current pandemic flu is obviously a less virulent strain.
If you follow news reports on the current pandemic, you will notice nearly every report reminds us that a vaccination is in development and will soon be available.
Though the historical and legal precedence was already in place for mandatory inoculations, fears of an avian flu pandemic early in this decade set government wheels in motion. President Obama was one of five senators to introduce the Pandemic Preparedness and Response Act in October of 2005, a bill that was not passed. However, the fear of an avian flu outbreak and the looming threat of bio-terrorism did result in recent laws that further pave the way for compulsory vaccinations if the government declares the need while holding the drug companies harmless if death or illness results from vaccinations: The Project BioShield Act of 2004 (S. 15) and The Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act (2006) are two examples.
The Project BioShield Act further erodes safeguards for safety of vaccinations by expediting and streamlining the approval process in case of a health emergency. The three main components of Project BioShield are:
- Ensuring that resources are available to pay for vaccines and other drugs
- Speeding up NIH research and development by authorizing NIAID to accelerate the normal contracting, scientific peer review, and approval processes
- Providing new emergency-use authorization for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for medical treatments that have not been formally approved and licensed 7
The Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act allows the Health and Human Services Secretary to declare an epidemic or disease to be a national emergency. The current pandemic has been declared a national health emergency and anti-viral drugs which have not been approved for young children will now be allowed due to the emergency. Some believe this act allows the HHS secretary to mandate vaccinations. The language is unclear. There is no question that HHS purchases the vaccine, stockpiles the vaccine, pays the states to distribute vaccines, decides who will first receive vaccines, and so forth.
A level 6 pandemic is characterized by the person to person spread of disease with community level outbreaks, in at least 2 countries in more than one WHO region. The level system does not take into account severity or mortality.6 The United States has declared the pandemic to be a national emergency. The question now is what criteria will be used to mandate vaccinations?
- Congressional Research Service, CRS Report for Congress
- World Health Organization website Pandemic (H1N1)
- Statement by WHO director, Margaret Cho on April 29, 2009
- Pandemic, Wikipedia
- 1918 Influenza: the Mother of All Pandemics, Jeffery K. Taubenberger and David M. Morens
- World Health Organization website
- Planning for the Unthinkable: Preparation and Response in Public Health, HHS website, media kit.