The Irish Times view on vaccination: High cost of herd immunity

Moving to a compulsory system would involve a sea-change in Irish mindsets, and could increase divisiveness in society rather than reducing it

Vaccines have been on the mind of Minister for Health Simon Harris in recent weeks. Amid concern over a recent rise in measles and mumps cases, and a dip in the uptake of some vaccines, the Minister has written to TDs and Senators, asking them to promote their use.

More controversially, Mr Harris has mooted the introduction of a compulsory vaccination programme for children attending schools and crèches, and has asked Attorney General Seamus Wolfe for advice.

That he chose to suggest this approach in the first place in a tweet does not inspire confidence in Mr Harris’s approach to policy formation.

It is obvious, too, that the health service suffers from many other challenges that do not seem to attract the same level of attention.

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Perhaps this is because they are regarded as intractable and likely to attract negative publicity.

Yet the issue deserves consideration.

Vaccines are life-savers, but they require high uptakes to provide population-wide protection. In recent years, uptake has dipped, due in part to ideological and unscientific campaigns of opposition.

This is one of the reasons behind the measles outbreaks across Europe over the past year. Mandatory vaccination is already the policy in 11 European countries, though most have traditions of greater state intervention than Ireland.

Against this, uptake rates in Ireland remain very high by international standards and are only slightly below target levels for most vaccines.

The spread of some infectious diseases, such as mumps, may be linked to other factors, such as waning immunity. A mix of education and booster shots could prove just as effective as a compulsory vaccination scheme.

Moving to a compulsory system would involve a sea-change in Irish mindsets, and could increase divisiveness in society rather than reducing it.

The Government would have to be certain of the benefit to accrue from such a measure before embarking on such a change.