James Colgrove, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the Department of Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, New York, writes in this commentary, in recent years, vaccine refusal and associated declines in herd immunity have contributed to numerous outbreaks of infectious diseases, consumed public health resources, and provoked increasingly polarized debates between supporters and opponents of vaccines.
Although the prominence of the Internet as a forum for information and misinformation has given these conflicts a distinctly 21st-century character, they have deep historical roots. Many of the scientific, ethical, and political challenges that physicians and public health officials face today in dealing with vaccine refusal would be recognizable to their counterparts of previous eras. The heart of their task entails balancing the use of coercive and persuasive approaches.
Coercion is the older tradition in public health. During the 19th century, many states and localities passed compulsory-smallpox-vaccination laws covering both children and adults. These laws were of a piece with an expansive network of public health regulations that arose in that era concerning practices such as quarantine, sanitation, and tenement construction. Vaccination laws imposed various penalties, including exclusion from school for unvaccinated children and fines or quarantine for adults who refused vaccination. The effectiveness of the laws was soon demonstrated — jurisdictions with them consistently had fewer disease outbreaks than those without — and their constitutionality was upheld in numerous court challenges that culminated in the 1905 Supreme Court case of Jacobson v. Massachusetts.
The use of coercion has always raised concerns about state intrusions on individual liberty and the scope of parental control over child-rearing. Compulsory vaccination laws in the 19th century typically contained no explicit opt-out provisions. Today, all states offer medical exemptions, and almost all offer religious or philosophical exemptions. Nevertheless, even a law with an opt-out provision may exert a coercive effect, to the extent that the availability of the exemption may be limited and conditional and the consequence of the law is to make the choice to withhold vaccination more difficult (if only marginally so) for the parent. These laws continue to be the target of antivaccination activism.
Persuasion became an important part of the public health tool kit in the 1920s, with the rise of modern forms of mass media. Health professionals began to draw on techniques from the emerging fields of advertising and public relations to sell people on the importance of childhood immunization against diphtheria and pertussis. Such appeals began to acquire a more scientific basis in the 1950s, after the development of the polio vaccine, when sociologists, psychologists, and other social scientists began to identify the attitudes, beliefs, and social contexts that predicted vaccine-related behaviors. Their efforts brought increasing theoretical and empirical rigor to the study of why people accepted or declined vaccination for themselves and their children, and health professionals used these insights to develop approaches to increase uptake of vaccines, such as enlisting community opinion leaders as allies.1 Persuasive approaches, because they are less restrictive, are ethically preferable and more politically acceptable, but they are also time consuming and labor-intensive, and evidence indicates that by themselves they are ineffective.
Vaccine refusal revisited — The limits of public health persuasion and coercion
October 12, 2016, New Engl J Med; 375:1316-1317, DOI: 10.1056/NEJMp1608967