An anonymous reader got some candid advice after writing into the New York Times Magazine's advice column The Ethicist to ask how she could get her anti-vaxx friend to tell other parents and her kid's school about her decision. Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at New York University, answered her letter by explaining that although getting your children vaccinated is a choice, it should be approached from a logical standpoint.
The letter writer, who's currently pregnant, described the situation: "One close friend, Y, has two young (vaccinated) children, and lives near another friend, X. Both Y and I have suspected for some time that X chose not to vaccinate her child, and we have been trying to work up the courage to ask her. With the new pregnancy as an excuse, the task fell to me. It turns out that X has indeed chosen not to vaccinate. When telling me this, she also asked me to keep her answer private."
Worried for the safety of her unborn child along with the rest of the kids X's child plays with, the new mom found herself in an ethical conundrum. "While her choice is not one I would make, I am perhaps even more upset by her request that I conceal the information . . . Y and X's children play together, and we have regular gatherings with many young children present."
The professor wasn't shy about sharing his science-backed opinion on why getting your children vaccinated does more good than harm:
[...] One reason parents avoid vaccinations is some version of this thought: "If I decide to vaccinate my child and something bad happens, my child will have suffered at my hands." But if that's a sensible thought, so should this one be: "If I decide not to vaccinate my child and something bad happens, my child will have suffered at my hands." What's important is whether the likely results of vaccination are better than the alternative. And the answer, once exposure to measles is a possibility, is yes. Even if that weren't true, there would be a second reason for being vaccinated: If we all did it, we would get herd immunity.
Appiah took the opportunity to remind parents that there are tangible numbers that prove vaccinations help lower the outbreak of disease. "And just to be clear about how great those benefits are: In a typical year before the measles vaccine was available in the United States, the virus infected millions, sent tens of thousands to the hospital, gave encephalitis to at least a thousand and killed hundreds."
Given the possible risks, what should this soon-to-be mom do about her friend's decision to hide her kid's lack of vaccinations? Go with her gut and tell both the school and other parents if the mom won't disclose the information. "Tell X that she ought to inform Y about the situation and also tell the school the truth. Letting her do it shows that you acknowledge her request not to pass the information on yourself," the professor said. "Give her a few days. If she continues to leave Y in the dark, though, you can tell Y what you've learned."
The bottom line is when it comes to exposing children to diseases that have been mostly eradicated, everyone should be willing to disclose their stance. "But it isn't crazy to worry about the danger of contact with unvaccinated children; parents are entitled to know the status of the kids that their kids play with . . . And children aren't normally vaccinated until they are [1 year old], so older children with infant siblings need to be kept away from the virus, too."