Josh Bloom is director of chemical and pharmaceutical sciences at the American Council on Science and Health.
Much of the ongoing controversy about requiring healthcare workers to be vaccinated against influenza is being framed as a clash between governmental or employer overreach and our personal right to select a career. But, in reality, this matter has little to do with individual rights—it's simply a matter of common sense, requiring no more sacrifice of our freedoms than the dozens of other ways in which we must conform in order to lead our lives and pursue our careers. No one has the "right" to a job—it is a privilege. A privilege that requires us to make certain sacrifices and assume some risks during our careers.
Electricians, athletes, and those in the military all accept certain risks. Those who care for the ill carry an additional burden—the need to protect their patients. If this means getting one vaccine each year, so be it. If these healthcare workers are unwilling or unable to do so, then they are free to find another profession where they are not in contact with vulnerable people. One reason for this controversy is that many people fail to recognize the potential seriousness of influenza. The 1918 flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people—more than all the combat deaths in World War I.
Influenza is extremely contagious, and with the exception of vaccination, there is little you can do to avoid it. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 5 and 20 percent of the U.S. population will catch it each year, leading to about 200,000 hospitalizations and between 3,000 and 50,000 deaths—the latter number being far greater than the annual mortality rate for people diagnosed with AIDS.
Hospitals are inherently dangerous places, especially to the very sick and elderly. Patients may be exposed to hospital-acquired, life-threatening infections, such as MRSA; the last thing they need is exposure to another serious pathogen.
This is why mandatory vaccination of healthcare workers is a no-brainer. The failure to protect already sick and vulnerable people from infections that are even partially preventable is nothing short of gross negligence.
The argument that the flu shot is a violation of your body rings hollow. By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have already gotten two dozen vaccinations. Also, the flu vaccine cannot give you the flu, as some fear. While some people may experience mild, transient reactions to it, serious complications are extraordinarily rare.
In a perfect world, this mandate should not require government intervention. But if certain hospitals are unwilling and unable to enforce this simple rule, then patients should be informed, so they may go elsewhere if they choose. If government regulation is indeed required, then it is a price worth paying. Some seeking exemption will argue that their religious beliefs prohibit vaccination and use this to avoid the shot. I view this as a cop-out. A religious nurse with the flu is just as dangerous as an infected atheist.
Vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit, chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, addresses this perfectly. The influenza vaccine was first used in the 1940s. "Not surprisingly," Offit says, "it isn't mentioned in either the Old or New Testaments. Religions, if they teach us nothing else, teach us to care about our neighbors. A choice not to get a vaccine is a choice to disregard your neighbor—a remarkably unreligious thing to do." I could not say it better.