Swine flu vaccine: Is it ethical to say no?

The government wants as many Americans as possible to get vaccinated against the swine flu. But what does that mean for people skeptical of the vaccine's safety and efficacy?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Registered nurses Michelle Lambert, second from left, of the Cleveland County Health Department, and Angie Strawderman, right, of the McClain County Health Department, administer doses of swine flu nasal spray vaccine to children at Newcastle Elementary School in Newcastle, Okla., on Wednesday.
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Does Americans' right to determine what is best for themselves and their families trump the federal government's efforts to head off what it believes could be a flu pandemic?

That is perhaps the primary ethical question at the heart of the controversy surrounding the government's swine flu vaccination campaign, and the answer is deeply contested by those on both sides of the issue.

So far, many Americans are balking at the vaccinations, saying there are too many questions about the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine, considering that, for most, the illness does not present a serious threat, according to health experts.

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Yet it's clear that the voluntary inoculation program is the keystone of the Obama administration's efforts to combat the H1N1 virus, or swine flu. The US government says it has no intention of forcing vaccinations, but its entire flu strategy could be undermined – endangering public health, they say – if a substantial portion of the US population opts out of the $3 billion program.

The debate is "changing the parameters" for individual responsibility, says Andrew Askland, director of the Center for the Study of Law, Science and Technology at Arizona State University in Tempe.

"Lots of people like the idea of everyone else getting inoculation and, 'If they do, then I don't have to,' " says Professor Askland.

Distrust of the government's vaccination plan is evident in recent polls, which show that two-thirds of parents, despite widespread government assurances, have serious reservations about the vaccines' effectiveness and safety.

Kent Holtorf of the Holtorf Medical Group in Torrance, Calif., told Fox News this week that, because of alleged risks to some individuals, parents would be "rolling the dice" if they gave the vaccine to their children.

But such commentary is "just not responsible," says James Hodge, a public health law expert at the Arizona State University [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the name of the university where James Hodge works.].

While some objections to vaccinations are warranted, he says, "we're also seeing an increasing feeling among some Americans that we shouldn't trust government on this, and that vaccines themselves are the cause of major harm, even though that connection doesn't exist."

Many Americans clearly disagree, with some going to far as to say that the government and the pharmaceutical industry are trying to engender fear in order to force compliance. New York State's decision to force medical professionals to get the swine flu vaccine – or lose their license to practice – has struck critics as tantamount to coercion.

"So a flu will break out, the establishment drug dealers will hype it to scare the populace, people will flock to get an ineffective immunization, and the makers of these vaccines will go to the bank," writes the blogger Szandor Blestman. "We as a population need to stop being driven by fear and start thinking through our actions."

Officials at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are strongly urging vaccination for a majority of Americans, including all kids and pregnant women. Officials have stopped short, however, of calling vaccination a moral imperative, instead urging Americans to think deeply about their perceptions and the communal impact of their decisions.

"Many of the concerns by parents are based on the perception that this vaccine has been rushed into production and may not be safe," said Tom Skinner, a CDC spokesman, told Fox News. "We understand parents' concerns – they want what is best for their children. We often tell people the best antidote for fear is information. And we ask them to really seek out sound and reliable information from sources they trust."

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Why many Americans are wary of the vaccine

Click here to read about the concerns that are giving Americans pause, from the vaccine's unclear effect on children with certain conditions to vaccines' oft-rumored link to autism.

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