A little over two months ago, nine individuals who visited Disneyland Park—just 30 miles south of the Claremont Colleges—tested positive for measles. It is widely believed that the patients contracted the highly contagious airborne disease while visiting the park during a window of several days. These incidents, however, have proven to be more than just a public relations headache for the Walt Disney company: They have re-sparked a nationwide debate on vaccinations, and whether or not the government should ‘force’ parents to vaccinate their children.
Subsequently, several notable politicians weighed in on the debate, including Senator Rand Paul and Governor Chris Christie. Both men expressed similar opinions that parents should ultimately have the final say about vaccinating their children. Paul and Christie have since been condemned and even ridiculed by members of the media and big-name politicians from both sides of the aisle.
Most of these condemnations are justified. As the TSL Editorial Board opined several years ago, the vaccine debate is not just a question about personal liberties; it is also a matter of public health. The science is quite clear that individuals who are not vaccinated from preventable diseases, such as the measles, are at much higher risks of contracting the disease and spreading it to others in their immediate community. In a college campus environment like Claremont (where thousands of students from all over the globe are living and interacting with one another at an extremely close proximity), it is obvious why vaccines are so critical.
Instead of being deeply alarmed by the possibility of the government mandating certain vaccinations, I would argue that we should be more concerned about the mega-pharmaceutical companies who are actually manufacturing and profiting off them.
It is key to note here that pharmaceutical production is among the most profitable industrial sectors in the United States. In the last decade, the top 11 pharmaceutical companies made approximately $711 billion in profits.
That’s a staggering amount of money going into the pockets of companies like Pfizer, Merck, and Johnson & Johnson. These mega corporations are responsible for developing and producing the countless different vaccines and prescription drugs that Americans use every year.
We are kidding ourselves if we honestly believe that big pharmaceutical companies are especially concerned about the average American’s wellbeing. Rather, the primary agenda of these corporations is to turn a profit, keeping their corporate executives wealthy and their shareholders happy. Since a small handful of these companies have a monopoly on production of important vaccines and other drugs, they can get away with charging astronomically high prices to consumers.
Take, for example, the fact that Merck is the only company in the U.S. who is licensed to produce and sell the vaccines that prevent measles. The sale of measles vaccines (such as MMR) account for over three percent of Merck’s billions of dollars that are generated in annual profits, and the prices they charge for the vaccines have been steadily rising in recent years.
Bringing down the prices of vaccines for consumers should be the most important goal. The Affordable Care Act has been helpful in getting more people insured, but there are still millions of lower income individuals for whom accessing vaccines remains a challenge.
The problem of high vaccine prices is particularly apparent here at the Claremont Colleges. The MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella, is required for all students at the Claremont Colleges. The cost of that vaccination is $85.00 at Student Health Services. Other important vaccines are even more expensive, including the ones for Meningitis, Hepatitis B and HPV (Gardasil) that cost upwards of $150.00 each.
According to the Director of Student Health Services Doctor Jennie Ho, these vaccines are sold at cost, meaning the prices are, effectively, directly set by the pharmaceutical companies. For a low-income college student, those kinds of prices are prohibitively expensive.
If we really want to have a productive conversation about vaccines, then let’s start by acting now. The federal government can mitigate high prices by enacting stricter price caps for public agencies that purchase vaccines, and by offering free or subsidized rates to people who might otherwise struggle to find the money to pay for basic healthcare. We have an obvious incentive to make vaccines universally affordable and accessible—everyone benefits when more people are vaccinated.
Make no mistake: It is vitally imperative for individuals to be vaccinated if we want to have a society that is free of preventable diseases. In order to make vaccines safer and more accessible, we must stand up to the incredibly powerful, influential, and wealthy pharmaceutical corporations. Simply authorizing a mandate for certain vaccines isn’t enough; we need to make sure that key vaccines are available to all individuals, regardless of what they can pay.
Chance Kawar PZ ‘17 is a political studies major from San Diego, Calif. He currently serves as sophomore class president at Pitzer College.