European countries can legally require vaccinations for children, the European Court of Human Rights ruled on Thursday. The decision concerns vaccinations for preschool children, but it could also have an impact on the EU's fight to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Compulsory vaccines can be seen as "necessary in a democratic society," said the Strasbourg-based court in its decision, which was 16-1 in favor.
A Czech man challenged his country's vaccination requirements for young children after receiving a fine for refusing to vaccinate his son and daughter against tetanus, hepatitis B and polio. The plaintiff, Pavel Vavricka, said the law violated his family's right to a private life. Five other families filed similar lawsuits after their children were denied entry to preschool or kindergarten.
The Human Rights Court agreed that vaccination requirements are a burden on individuals, but added that societal benefits outweigh that burden.
According to the laws of the Czech Republic, children must receive two combination vaccines to protect themselves from a range of diseases, according to the public broadcaster Czech Television.
The court described vaccines as "one of the most successful and inexpensive health interventions known to medicine, and noted that the dynamics of herd immunity make it important to achieve high vaccination rates.
The inability of some children to be vaccinated for medical reasons makes it more important, according to the court, to achieve a "very high vaccination rate" to protect against infectious diseases.
According to Deutsche Welle and other European media, Thursday's decision is the first time the European judicial court has ruled on compulsory vaccination.
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In addition to the ruling on privacy grounds, the court also dismissed several plaintiffs' argument that the EU's guarantee of freedom of religion or belief protects their position against the vaccines.
According to the judgment, the plaintiffs could not demonstrate that their opinion on vaccines was "of sufficient coherence, seriousness, cohesion and relevance to establish a belief or belief", as provided for in Article 9 of the European Constitution.
All Czech cases were filed years before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the verdict comes as many countries – in Europe and around the world – are looking for ways to ensure their populations reach high levels of vaccination. Much of these efforts are met with skepticism fueled by misinformation and concerns that vaccine development may have been accelerated.
Much of the US population is also reluctant to get COVID-19 vaccines: one in four Americans say they immediately decline the vaccination, according to a recent NPR / Marist poll.