Herd Protection as a Public Good

This paper seeks to critically review a traditional objection to preventive medicine (which I call here the ‘prevention problem’). The prevention problem is a concern about the supposedly inequitable distribution of benefits and risks of harm resulting from preventive medicine's focus on population-based interventions. This objection is potentially applicable to preventive vaccination programmes and could be used to argue that such programmes are unethical. I explore the structure of the prevention problem by focusing upon two different types of vaccination (therapeutic vaccination and preventive vaccination). I argue that the ‘prevention problem’ cannot be fairly applied to the case of preventive vaccination because such programmes do not just focus upon benefits at the level of populations (as is claimed by the prevention problem). Most such preventive vaccination programmes explicitly seek to create and maintain herd protection. I argue that herd protection is an important public good which is a benefit shared by all individuals in the relevant population. This fact can then be used to block the ‘prevention problem’ argument in relation to preventive vaccination programmes. I conclude by suggesting that whilst the future development and use of therapeutic vaccines does raise some interesting ethical issues, any ethical objections to prophylactic vaccination on the basis of the ‘prevention problem’ will not be overcome through the substitution of therapeutic vaccines for preventive vaccines; indeed, the ‘prevention problem’ fails on its own terms in relation to preventive vaccination programmes.

Angus Dawson
Published in: Bioethics
2004 Volume 18, Issue 6 Pages 515–530