Herd Immunity and Compulsory Childhood Vaccination: Does the Theory Justify the Law?

Oregon Law Review

2014 Volume 93 Number 1


Compulsory childhood vaccination is a cornerstone of U.S. public health  policy.  All  fifty  states  compel  children  to  vaccinate  against many  infectious  diseases  to  achieve  so-called  herd  immunity,  a scientific  theory  that  attempts  to  explain  how  societies  protect themselves against infectious disease.

This  Article  explores  both  the  theory  and  practice  of  herd immunity. The authors evaluate the scientific assumptions underlying the theory, how the theory applies in law, a game theory approach to herd immunity, and a possible framework for rational policymaking. The  Article  argues  that herd  immunityis unattainable for most diseases  and  is  therefore  an  irrational  goal. Instead,  the  authors conclude that herd effect is attainable and that a voluntary vaccination marketplace,  not  command-and-control  compulsion,  would  most efficiently achieve that goal.

The Article takes on the bugaboo of the citizen “free rider” who is out to game the system, how a vaccination marketplace might work, and what factors policymakers must take into account in developing sound policies. The Article concludes that it is time for states to adopt more realistic and cost-efficient laws to achieve attainable herd effect, not illusory herd immunity.


*Mary Holland is a Research Scholar and Director of the Graduate Lawyering Program at  New  York  University  School  of  Law. Chase  Zachary  received  his  J.D.  degree  from NYU School of Law in 2014, and he has a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Princeton University.

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