European Court of Human Rights / Screenshot by NPR
European countries can legally require childhood vaccinations, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Thursday. The decision covers preschool vaccinations for children, but it could also impact the EU’s battle to control the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mandatory vaccines can be considered “necessary in a democratic society,” the Strasbourg-based court said in its judgment, which was voted by 16 votes to 1.
A Czech had challenged his country’s vaccination requirement for young children, after being fined for refusing to have his son and daughter vaccinated against tetanus, hepatitis B and polio. The plaintiff, Pavel Vavricka, said the law violated his family’s right to privacy. Five other families have filed similar lawsuits after their children were refused admission to preschools or nurseries.
The human rights tribunal agreed that vaccine obligations place a burden on an individual, but added that the benefits to society outweigh the burden.
Laws in the Czech Republic require children to receive two combined vaccines to protect against a number of illnesses, according to state broadcaster Czech Television.
Calling vaccines “one of the most effective and cost-effective health interventions” known to medicine, the court noted that the dynamics of herd immunity make it important to achieve a high rate of immunization.
The inability of some children to get vaccinated for medical reasons, the court said, makes it more important to achieve “a very high vaccination rate” to protect against contagious diseases.
Thursday’s ruling marks the first time the European Court of Human Rights has ruled on mandatory vaccinations, according to Deutsche Welle and other European media outlets.
In addition to ruling for confidentiality reasons, the court also rejected the argument of several of the plaintiffs that the EU’s guarantee of freedom of religion and belief protects their position against vaccines.
According to the ruling, the plaintiffs have failed to prove that their views on vaccines “are sufficiently convincing, serious, consistent and important to constitute a conviction or conviction” under the protections of Article 9 of the European Constitution.
All of the Czech cases were filed years before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the decision comes as many countries – in Europe and around the world – are looking for ways to ensure their populations reach high immunization levels. Many of these efforts are met with skepticism, fueled by misinformation and fears that vaccine development may have been rushed.
Much of the American population is also reluctant to receive COVID-19 vaccines: 1 in 4 Americans say they would categorically refuse the vaccination, according to a recent NPR / Marist poll.