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Opinion: Mandating Flu Shots Is the Moral Choice

Chihn Ha, 8, gets an influenza vaccine injection in Boston. BRIAN SNYDER / Reuters File

The battle over vaccination has taken a fascinating new twist in Rhode Island, where the Department of Health has proposed a policy under which all children between 6 months and 5 years of age would have to be vaccinated against the flu before entering daycare or preschool.

The twist: Along with the usual vaccination opponents, the ACLU has joined the fight — on the critics' side. That is the side that favors letting people get sick, miss work and even die in the name of personal choice.

Hilary Davis of the Rhode Island ACLU rose up at a hearing last week on the proposed mandate, saying the Department of Health doesn't care about what parents think and that "last year's flu shot efficacy rate was around 47 percent," suggesting the state is trying to mandate something of no medical value to babies.

Why do I say the ACLU is off the mark both morally and medically?

Medically, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention both strongly recommend routine flu vaccine for everyone older than 6 months and especially for children younger than 5. The 47 percent Davis quoted? That's based on the entire general population, not the children affected by the mandate. For children 6 months to 17 years, the CDC said the effectiveness rate was 64 percent. And, the more kids who get vaccinated, the greater the efficacy of the vaccine due to "herd immunity" — fewer unvaccinated kids makes it harder for the flu virus to spread in a daycare center or classroom.

"The Rhode Island law is not just about protecting kids. ... It is trying to prevent killing grandma by infecting her."

The ACLU failed to mention those numbers and a few others. An average of 20,000 children younger than 5 are hospitalized each year due to the flu. Last year of the 171 kids who died from the flu, a vast majority were not vaccinated.

Those who oppose vaccines often promote questionable alternatives: the preventive powers of vitamin D (no proof it does anything for the flu), exercise (if you go to a gym in flu season, it is a great place to be infected) or swallowing Echinacea (promoted and sold by the Big Supplement industry to earn them big profits).

Not only is the ACLU inexcusably wrong about the value of flu vaccination for young children, it is way off the mark on the issue of liberty. The Rhode Island law is not about protecting kids. It is trying to prevent infected kids from killing or making other kids sick, especially those with asthma or immune diseases. It is trying to prevent killing grandma by infecting her, killing pregnant women's fetuses or striking dead the neighbor who is getting chemotherapy or is post an organ-transplant who encounters an infected baby or child at the supermarket, train station or movie theater.

"The government telling parents what to do when it comes to their children's health is hardly new. They do it a lot — from mandating carseats to banning lead paint and requiring childproof caps on drugs and pesticides."

That is why the proposed policy lets parents opt out of vaccination for medical or religious reasons as long as they keep their kids at home during flu outbreaks. Surely, protecting the health of others by requiring them to be vaccinated or stay home can be justified by trying to prevent the 37 deaths of children who have already died from the flu this season. Their liberty is permanently over.

The government telling parents what to do when it comes to their children's health is hardly new. They do it a lot — from mandating carseats to banning lead paint and requiring childproof caps on drugs and pesticides. For parents who balk when it comes to science and safety, the state has a legitimate interest in overriding bad choices that can be fatal.

Can You Get the Flu from the Flu Shot? 0:40

Connecticut, New Jersey and New York City all have the kind of preschool flu shot mandates Rhode Island is trying to implement. The ACLU, parents, teachers unions and all the rest of us should be doing something about this. All should be making sure Rhode Island and the rest of the nation adopt mandatory flu vaccination policies.