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On Anti-Vaxxers: Robert Klitzman Explores the Legacy of Public Health Backlashes

On The Huffington Post’s All Together podcast, M.S. in Bioethics director Dr. Robert Klitzman and author of The Ethics Police?: The Struggle to Make Human Research Safe speaks about the history and psychology of backlashes against vaccines and government intervention in public health.

“Vaccines have always raised a set of concerns amongst many people,” he says. “Unfortunately, that can have deadly consequences….People are understandably concerned about [inoculations]: ‘I'm healthy. What do I need a shot for? The shot hurts – what exactly is it you're giving me?’”

He then turns to the issue of legislating preventative measures. “What gets worse is when we mandate that vaccination occur. There's a resistance to government involvement in our lives.”

He recalls that Americans bristled at early versions of the polio vaccine as well as the mumps, measles, and rubella (MMR) vaccines. He also notes the failures of Pres. Ford’s efforts to inoculate the public to prevent swine flu: “A few cases of Guillain-Barre syndrome developed. That fueled this notion that vaccines can somehow be dangerous.”

But while patients debate the merits of vaccines, they sometimes neglect to understand the wider implications of refusing inoculations. “If I opt out of a vaccine, I am putting at risk not just myself but other people,” he says. “Behind public health measures such as [vaccines], our desire is to help not just you but society as a whole.”

He says that he and his fellow doctors “are not going to do to patients what patients don't want.” He therefore calls upon patients to consider that inoculating their children has the potential not only to protect themselves but also to protect the community. “People, ideally, need some sense of social responsibility...to further their interest in undertaking these public health measures,” he says.