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Truth must win

We, as parents, send our children off to school with the expectation they will be safe.

But how much an expectation do we have? Do we, as parents, have a right to student safety? And is that an absolute right? Or must we compromise that right to safeguard the right of a parent, who, wary of vaccinations, elects not to send their children to school with the proper immunizations? A child has a right to go to public school. True, but can that right be denied if a parent refuses to have a child immunized? Must a parent forfeit the right to a public education if he or she believes that vaccines are harmful or, even, deadly?

This tangle of questions came before the Marathon County Board of Health on Monday in a debate over whether to support state legislation to end Wisconsin’s personal conviction exemption for school and day care immunizations.

On one side, a roomful of parents told the board, often wiping away tears, horrendous stories of illnesses visited upon loved ones, including children, that were preceded by a flu shot or standard childhood vaccines.

Theseparents,armedwithbooks,videosandquotes from “experts” around the globe, told the health board that the nation’s biggest drug companies, protected from lawsuits by federal law, had no financial interest in safety or research, only selling vaccine doses to a naive public with the endorsement of the health care profession.

These parents said the drug companies could not be trusted. They pointed out that no less than the Marathon County Board of Supervisors was in the midst of suing these very companies for lying about opiates and addiction.

On the other side of the debate were local doctors and a handful of students from the local Medical College of Wisconsin campus. They pointed out that vaccines save lives every day. They recalled the horror of diseases like measles, meningitis and polio in the days before vaccines. They said vaccines are carefully researched and manufactured and, when used, not perfectly safe, but extraordinarily safe. They said immunizations were a bedrock of public health.

In the end, the board of health voted to support the resolution calling on the state legislature to end the personal conviction exception. The board did the right thing. Everybody can have their own opinions and raise their children based on those beliefs. That’s the freedom we share.

But when we send our children, who are all vulnerable to disease, to a common public school, our personal opinions must take a backseat to established medical fact. The public cannot be exposed to lifethreatening disease because a parent insists on his or her speculations. No individual has the right to make other people sick. This principle was established by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1905 in Jacobson v. Massachusetts, recognizing the power of the government to mandate vaccinations during disease outbreaks, and, 20 years later, in Zucht vs. King, where the court ruled a child’s right to public education did not shield the student from mandatory vaccination.

Marathon County health officer Joan Theurer reported that Marathon County childhood immunizations, following a statewide trend, have been falling off in recent years. In this county, only 93.1 percent of children are immunized. Parents use the personal conviction exemption to send nearly four percent of unvaccinated children to public school.

We agree these statistics are alarming and a call to action. The board of health was right to call for narrowing parental choice to try and boost immunizations. The state will continue to have medical and religious belief exemptions to immunization.

We believe in freedom of thought. We believe in the rights of parents. But these rights do not give any parent the right to put somebody else’s children at risk. That means a parent who believes vaccines are injurious or, possibly, crippling, and refuses to have his or her child immunized must forfeit his or her child’s right to a free public education. We can choose our facts and experts when it’s about us. That stops when the community is at stake. The truth, rigorously investigated and tested by science, must prevail.

Editorial by Peter Weinschenk, The Record-Review