Give Them The Needle
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National Post
Wednesday, May 11, 2005
Page: A20

Ontario public health officials are currently fighting an outbreak of a potentially serious yet entirely preventable disease. One hundred and twenty-one cases of rubella, a virus better known as German measles, have been confirmed in the province so far, and more are expected. The reason? Norwich, Ont. -- the site of the outbreak's first reported case -- is home to a sizable Dutch Reform community, a Christian denomination that opposes rubella vaccinations on religious grounds. The consequences for public health have been predictable.

The area population has proven a fertile area for the virus, which causes only mild illness in children, but presents greater problems for adults. Most seriously, rubella almost always leads to serious birth defects in infants whose mothers were infected early in their pregnancies, and it can also cause miscarriages. Deafness, blindness, cognitive disabilities and heart defects are all common in babies infected with rubella in the womb.

Although we are usually loath to endorse any added government involvement in individuals' private lives, the Ontario rubella outbreak represents an exception: Preventing the spread of serious communicable disease is one area where coercive measures are mandated. The MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine should be mandatory for all Canadians, except those for whom it would be medically inadvisable.

Such a requirement would impinge on the religious liberties of adherents of the Dutch Reform church. However, there are other rights to consider -- including, in this instance, the right to be protected from life-altering disabilities.

Martien Vanderspek, the principal of the Rehoboth Christian School where the current rash of rubella cases seems to have begun, has promised: "Whatever happens, they have a place in our community if it is God's will a handicapped child is born."

That is a noble sentiment, we suppose, but not one the state can rely on in its own policy-making. Not one more child should be born in Canada afflicted with rubella, a virus that it is within medicine's power to forestall.