We posed that question to Jodi Halpern, MD, PhD, a professor of bioethics at the Joint Medical Program at the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, San Francisco. Specifically, we wanted to know: From her professional viewpoint, is it ethical to let unvaccinated children into public schools, if they might put other children at risk?
The following is Dr. Halpern's response.
"That's an important question given that we've had recent outbreaks of measles and pertussis, both contagious diseases that can be prevented with vaccines.
Most parents of unvaccinated children believe they are trying to protect their child from vaccines' possible harm, despite medical evidence to the contrary. I've talked to parents who are terrified that vaccines will worsen the neuropsychological conditions of children with existing problems. They don’t want to put other children at risk. Rather, they are saying, 'We have a different belief system than the state, and the state cannot impose its beliefs on our family.'
Yet there is no doubt that an unvaccinated child infected with measles could inadvertently harm other children, especially ones who can't be immunized because they have low immunity due to illnesses like cancer. So there’s an ethical and fiduciary responsibility that lies with the school.
There are basic conditions to have a civil society, and one of them is collaboration. For parents to send their children to school, they have to believe that the schools are full fiduciaries for their children. They have to trust that the school will not harm their children.
You wouldn't send your child to a school with broken glass, rusty nails, or dangerous equipment on the playground. You expect the school to keep its grounds safe. In the same way, when you send your young children to a public school, you expect that the school will protect them from preventable, serious diseases. If your children are going to be put at risk for a serious disease like measles, then the schools are not being an adequate fiduciary.
For this reason, public schools do have an ethical obligation to require students to get vaccinated unless they are immunocompromised and can't for medical reasons. This does not mean that the state has the right to forcefully vaccinate children against their parents' will. But it does mean that some children whose parents don't believe in vaccines may not be able to attend public schools during measles outbreaks if their presence would put other students at risk."
For the CDC's recommended childhood immunization schedule, click here.