An article in today’s Globe and Mail argues that it is selfish for people to refuse the H1N1 flu vaccine, given the risks it creates for other people. The argument is a pretty strong one. The chances of suffering serious side effects from the vaccine are very low, the illness is a serious one, and people who could get vaccinated choosing not to do so does very plausibly cause harm to others.
Firstly, people hospitalized with preventable swine flu will occupy beds and the attention of medical staff, to the detriment of other patients. There is also a chance they will make medical personnel sick. Refusing to get vaccinated also threatens those who are immunosuppressed.
Medical ethics is often a challenging field in which to reach conclusions about what behaviours are admirable, which are dubious, and which should be prohibited. There is often a trade-off between individual autonomy, individual risk and reward, and collective risk and reward. In this case, I think those who choose not to get the vaccine as mis-applying their autonomy. That is on account of a faulty perception about the risks and rewards they face. That said, I am wary of saying that people other than primary care providers should be mandated to take the vaccine. If anything, that might produce a more harmful backlash in the long term. That said, I think it is fair to say that people who choose not to get the vaccine probably aren’t acting very intelligently or empathetically.
[Update: 18 November 2009] I got the vaccine tonight – the first evening when it was available for non-priority groups in Ottawa.