Equal rights for all races, genders, and sexual orientation. Do not litter. Don’t drink and drive. Give money to charity. Etc, etc, etc.
Why do these things? Because it’s the right thing to do as a society. The vast majority of us do these things because we care about other people. We want to help others. We don’t litter because it makes the world ugly. We don’t drink and drive because we could kill ourselves and others. We eat local and buy Priuses because it helps the environment.
There is a strong history of branding an individual problem in order to change our behavior to benefit society. The Don’t Mess With Texas campaign is credited with reducing litter on Texas highways 72% between 1986 and 1990. Smoking in public has been markedly reduced because it harms other people. Just watch Mad Men to see how society has changed. We now look at the world in a more connected way. We behave differently because, through marketing, we now know that the way we behave makes a difference in the world.
Vaccines work because of herd immunity. In diseases passed from person-to-person, it is more difficult to maintain a chain of infection when large numbers of a population are immune. The higher the proportion of individuals who are immune, the lower the likelihood that a susceptible person will come into contact with an infected individual.
Not getting vaccinated is therefore a social problem, like driving drunk, littering, equal rights, and smoking around children. For every person who does not get vaccinated, more people in our society are at risk of serious illness or death.
In 1904, there was a Supreme Court case called Jacobson vs. Massachusetts. Massachusetts at the time had a law mandating smallpox vaccination. Jacobson didn’t want to be vaccinated. He sued. The court ruled against Jacobson:
“in every well-ordered society charged with the duty of conserving the safety of its members, the rights of the individuals in respect of his liberty may at times, under the pressure of great dangers, be subjected to such restraint, to be enforced by reasonable regulations as the safety of the general public may demand.”
They ruled it was in the public’s interest for the state to enforce the law. It was a top down, creepy implication that in order for the public to be protected, we should all be required to risk death as a complication of a vaccine. While I don’t agree with this top-down approach, we’re smarter today. And vaccines are much, much safer today than injecting powdered smallpox scabs. They ruled properly, but mandates aren’t the answer.
Making vaccination a social cause is the answer. Doing things for others makes us feel really good. Getting vaccinated not only protects me, but it protects the herd of awesome people around me, so none of my friends or strangers die a preventable death.