Shots in the Dark

Questioning childhood vaccinations: It's not just for paranoiacs anymore

In January, Congress did repeal the ban on thimerosal suits, but it's hard to imagine what it will take to restore the good faith necessary to sell the concept of herd immunity. A hearing held last month at the state capitol to consider expanding the number of vaccines required in Minnesota drew plenty of angry, active, and organized parents who appear to have won over several conservative legislators. Public health officials, meanwhile, just kept suggesting that a handful of conspiracy theorists were undermining public confidence in vaccines.

Steve Miles, a politically savvy physician who works for the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics, can wax eloquent on the pharmaceutical industry's stranglehold on Washington and on the government's abuse of the public's trust. But he still believes in the collective responsibility of the rest of us. "One of the questions people who don't get vaccinated have to ask themselves is what their responsibility is to the people who die from the breakdown in herd immunity," he says. "There's a sense that we don't belong in the public commons; in a sense, that we are all living in gated communities."

All things being equal, I believe in public responsibility, too. But it's precisely the perception of individual risk that created those gated communities in the first place. And when the needles are aimed at one of the chubby little thighs in my charge, it all boils down to one very simple reality: If Eli Lilly doesn't have to live with thimerosal's unforeseen consequences, if the company can retreat into a government-sponsored enclave, then we aren't all sharing the risk.

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