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EDITORIAL

It's time to take one for the team

Thursday, January 3, 2013 - 12:01 am

Not getting your flu vaccination is like smoking in public.

Something some people do endangers their co-workers and even members of the public. There's a big fight about where the line between individual freedom and responsibility to the group should be drawn and what government should do to define and enforce that line.

No, not people who puff on cigarettes, pipes and cigars, treating those around them to plumes of potentially deadly secondhand smoke. We're talking about people who refuse to get their flu shots, risking contracting the potentially deadly virus themselves and spreading it to those they come in contact with. IU Health Goshen Hospital told its staff in September that flu shots would no longer be optional for staff, affiliated physicians, volunteers and vendors. Eight employees refused to get their shots, and the hospital fired them.

The flu and smoking issues raise exactly the same kind of arguments. The only difference is that the debate is a little cleaner and clearer in the case of flu.

The dangers of secondhand smoke have always been a matter of debate – does the evidence really support the claims of imminent harm, or has the threat been exaggerated? It has been inevitable, therefore, that the debate has veered into areas of, shall we say, secondary concern. Shouldn't property owners have the right to determine the behavior on their property? Don't we all have the obligation to go to the types of places we like instead of trying to force everybody to live by our standards?

There's no such doubt to distract us in the case of flu. It has, beyond dispute, the highest death rate of any vaccine-preventable disease. More than 200,000 people a year in the U.S. have flu so severe it requires hospitalization, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Over the 30-year period from 1976 to 2006, an average of almost 24,000 people a year died from the flu.

We clearly see the line in the case of flu: People have the right to takes risks when they're the only potential victims. When their actions have the potential to harm others, those who make rules that control behavior – whether it's a business owner on his own property or the government in all places the public gathers – have the obligation to step in. And the toughness of the action should be dictated by how strong the danger is. Typhoid Marys get put under lock and key, not lectured and fined.

Of course government doesn't always get the line right. There is a difference between not wearing a seat belt, in which case only those making that decision are at greater risk in a crash, and driving while drinking, which puts everyone in the path of the driver at risk. But the government insists on treating both the same, blurring the distinction between individual prerogatives and obligation to the group.