Everyday Ethics

Everyday Ethics

Should We Vaccinate Health Care Workers For Swine Flu Whether They Like It Or Not?

Health care workers are on the front lines of the battle
against H1N1 this year. So why not look at the question of whether it ought to
be mandatory for them to receive swine flu vaccinations using a military


There’s been a lot of argument about whether hospital workers should be forced to get vaccinated before they continue to work with the public this flu season – and some states, like New York, already have made it mandatory. A lot of folks say it’s a violation of people’s rights to nail them down and shove a needle in their arm (or a nozzle up their nose) if they don’t want it. Some doctors, nurses, orderlies, etc harbor the same prejudices against vaccines as the paranoid elements in the general public, and they don’t want it.


So… perhaps they shouldn’t be forced to get it? It would seem to be a pretty clear violation of one’s individual civil rights, wouldn’t it?

But others argue it’s a matter of simple mathematics, not ethics or legalities, and these folks should just shut up and take their medicine. The medical establishment seems to agree – sick health care workers make for sicker patients, and we need these vital foot soldiers healthy to take care of the rest of us. Not only that, we need them not to carry and spread flu virus to immunosuppressed patients like the elderly in hospice care, cancer patients receiving chemotherapy, etc. 


Voluntary programs have been shown not to work. To get the necessary 90% compliance to make vaccination worthwhile, nothing less than a mandatory vaccination campaign will really make a dent.

On to our metaphor. If this was the Army, they’d take it and salute afterward. In the armed services, you don’t have to like your orders, but you have to obey them. It’s part of your sacred trust. You are protectors and defenders of your country, and you’ve sworn an oath to that effect.


Don’t doctors and nurses have a similar obligation to uphold the best practices of the medical establishment, as laid down by, for instance, the C.D.C.?

Ah ha! you say. Here’s the flaw in your syllogism. Unlike soldiers, if health care workers don’t like it, they can quit without being considered AWOL. It’s no fun to be out of a job, but at least it’s not Leavenworth. It’s not the same for health care workers as for soldiers – sure, they protect us, but they haven’t sworn their lives to Uncle Sam. And since they haven’t made any such vow, didn’t sign on the dotted line, don’t they have the right not to be out of a job because of a personal health choice about what to put – or not put – in their own bodies? That’s what the labor unions are arguing, and it seems a fair point.


But wait, I retort, don’t doctors take the Hippocratic Oath to “first, do no harm”? If science says conclusively (and it does appear to) that getting the flu vaccine will lessen the risks for the general public, you’d be breaking that oath if you refuse it. New York State agreed, and to hell with the health care unions. People in NY are pretty pissed, and now other states are taking up the question.


May I suggest that, just like pharmacists who don’t like giving out the ‘morning after pill’, you either suck it up and follow the rules or get out of the business. If I had my way, you’d be court-martialed for doing anything less.


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Comments read comments(6)
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posted October 10, 2009 at 8:14 pm

Yes they have a right to decide what to do with themselves, but they don’t have an absolute right to subject others to the consequences of their foolishness. It’s sort of appalling that that people of that level of ignorance can make it into a science-based which depends on data-driven risk/benefit calculation.
A lot of the same people who obsess over vaccine risks are also overweight and or smokers, things that are many hundreds of times more likely to kill them than a bad shot reaction. If we can’t compel them to do something that’s basic sound practice on behalf of their patients in this instance, what’s to stop them from opting out of basic hygiene procedures or coming to work drunk, or deciding they simply won’t deal with blood, or patients with any infection disease, and on and on.

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posted October 10, 2009 at 9:20 pm

Excuse me, I’m only slightly overweight and have NEVER smoked. I have never taken the Flu vaccine nor do I plan to. Please remember, last year they weren’t closing hospitals d/t the H1N1, we know how to prevent spread of illness. Guess Big Pharm has agreed to give NY a cut of their 10 BILLION (not million, but BILLION) in profits from this mandate. As an RN, I plan on practicing in a very close neighboring state, or a nursing home or maybe as you said, leaving nursing all together. It will be NY’s loss. I’m a great RN. Wonder who will be left to take are of the patients? At least my immune system will be left somewhat intact. Maybe I can enjoy retirement without some sort of MS from the vaccines.

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Rob Kozik

posted October 11, 2009 at 8:13 am

Let’s be real, if it were the general public being force to get the shot, it would be a public relations nightmare. Instead of a sea of healthcare workers complaining that their rights are being violated it would be a sea of lawyers instead.
The general public should be the ones getting the vaccine. Period. 90% of the general public would be lucky if they washed their hands once a day let alone figure out what soap and water is used for. Patients should be protected from themselves and the general public because they are the ones spreading the flu. Not the healthcare workers.

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posted October 12, 2009 at 3:01 pm

No one should be forced to take a vaccine.

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posted October 13, 2009 at 2:20 pm

You need to be very careful about why you want to restrict the liberty of a person or group.
Influenza immunizations (H1N1 or the usual variety) are not guaranteed protection, and there are definite risks.
If you want herd immunity, you should immunize the herd, not the herders. Try mandating that, and see how it works out for you.

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posted October 15, 2009 at 1:24 am

When I worked in human services I had specific regulations and policies I had to follow to protect the health and safety of my clients, myself and my co-workers. This is no different. If the employees don’t want to comply they’re free to find other employment.

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