The Vaccine Blog

Individual freedom vs collective responsibility ; what is the most important aspect of vaccination?

It's been touted as one of the most important, if not the most important, ethical issue behind vaccination, and healthcare ethics more broadly. 


Individual freedom. Or collective responsibility


Statue of Liberty in New York City



It's true that we should have freedom over healthcare decisions. In fact, that's actually a core ethical principle of medicine. It's the central driving force behind the patient-physician dynamic. Freedom allows us to make our own personal decisions, be they about healthcare or not, and feel comfortable about them. Not allowing people to do so can breed significant resentment towards the oppressors. In fact, it doesn't need to be healthcare decisions about vaccines themselves. It can be restricting freedom in any aspect of health (ie. reproductive freedom, consider the Roe vs Wade overturning in May 2022). 


From the website of the World Health Organization, freedom really means a human-rights based approach to health. 


The right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health is enshrined in several international legal instruments including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. It includes freedoms and entitlements. Freedoms include the right to control one’s health and body (for example, sexual and reproductive rights) and to be free from interference (for example, free from torture and non-consensual medical treatment and experimentation, particularly relevant for persons with disabilities). Entitlements include the right to access quality health services without any discrimination. 

A human rights-based approach to health commits countries to develop rights-compliant, effective, gender transformative, integrated, accountable health systems and implement other public health measures that improve the underlying determinants of health, like access to water and sanitation. 

This means countries must ensure legislation and health policies and programmes respect and advance the realisation of human rights. Research shows that proactive measures to comply with human rights obligations help countries improve substantive equality and build resilience to shocks. For example, applying a human rights framework to reproductive health can help us identify how preventable maternal mortality and morbidity results from a variety of human rights violations including discrimination and lack of access to quality health services.


 For all these reasons, it's crucial that freedom is given the attention it deserves. 


So first of all; how would you define freedom? Well, stated simply, freedom is having the ability to think, speak, and act as you wish (within reason, of course). 


Freedom is intertwined with responsibility, and it is also crucial to acknowledge that. You are absolutely free to reject vaccines. Absolutely Nobody is going to come to your house and hold you down to administer it. The flip side of that is that you then may be responsible for complying with measures to reduce others risk ie. not entering certain areas, jobs etc. without being vaccinated, or at least masked, hands washed and so on. Actions have consequences. That's a universal truth. I'm aware I`ve stated that before a number of times; but it really bears repeating. 


It is, however, not accurate to place all the blame on vaccine hesitators or refusers themselves. It's well known in the literature, and in scientific and medical circles that distrust is a huge component of vaccine hesitancy. However, that begs the question. Do they have reason to be distrustful? 


One reason cited for this distrust is profit made from vaccines. While it is certainly true that pharmaceutical companies make profit from vaccines, it`s meagre in comparison to drugs like aspirin, antiinflammatory drugs, or antivirals. That said, that isn't the real issue. The real issue (for many people) is that a very small proportion of people have disproportionate levels of wealth and thus power. I believe that much of the emotion is a result of this. So vaccine hesitancy can very much serve as a surrogate for other issues, It's always been that way, ever since the development of the first smallpox vaccine. With that, we may need a “top down” approach to addressing vaccine hesitancy. How do we regulate such a small, powerful proportion of the population? Is that even possible? I`ll delve into that in a future post; but I`ll leave you with an insightful quote I heard; power also comes with responsibility.  I believe that really rings true in this case. Thanks for reading. 

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  1. Human rights).
  2. US Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade – but for abortion opponents, this is just the beginning