March 12, 2008
LONDON (AP) — As doctors struggle to eradicate polio worldwide, one of their biggest problems is persuading parents to vaccinate their children. In Belgium, authorities are resorting to an extreme measure: prison sentences.
Two sets of parents in Belgium were recently handed five month prison terms for failing to vaccinate their children against polio. Each parent was also fined 4,100 euros ($8,000).
“It’s a pretty extraordinary case,” said Dr. Ross Upshur, director of the Joint Centre for Bioethics at the University of Toronto.
“The Belgians have a right to take some action against the parents, given the seriousness of polio, but the question is, is a prison sentence disproportionate?”
The parents can still avoid prison — their sentences were delayed to give them a chance to vaccinate their children. But if that deadline also passes without their children receiving the injections, the parents could be put behind bars.
Because of privacy laws, Belgian officials would not talk specifically about the case, such as why the parents refused the vaccine or how much longer they have to vaccinate their children.
The polio vaccine is the only one required by Belgian law. Exceptions are granted only if parents can prove their children might have a bad physical reaction to the vaccine.
“Polio is a very serious disease and has caused great suffering in the past,” said Dr. Victor Lusayu, head of Belgium’s international vaccine centre. “The discovery of the vaccine has eliminated polio from Europe and it is simply the law in Belgium that you have to be vaccinated. … At the end of the day, the law must be respected.”
Some ethicists back the hardline Belgian stance.
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