Schools Can Mandate Vaccines for Kids, Rights Court Rules

In a country home to one of Europe’s highest levels of vaccine hesitancy, six Czech families failed to show that school vaccine policies violate their rights.

People wearing face masks arrive the Masaryk train station in Prague, Czech Republic, on Sept. 17, 2020. (Simanek Vit/CTKvia AP)

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Resolving its first case over compulsory childhood vaccination legislation, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Thursday against parents who said the Czech Republic’s school-enrollment requirements trampled their right to privacy. 

While children in the Central European country are not forcibly vaccinated, Czech law says anyone who fails to vaccinate their child can be fined 10,000 Czech crowns ($420). Meanwhile unvaccinated children are barred from attending state educational facilities, including day care centers.

Six Czech families whose children were refused admittance to preschool because they had not had mandatory vaccines against diseases like polio and measles brought the challenge here, arguing that parents have the sole right to determine what medical treatments their children receive.

The only parent in the group to face a fine, Pavel Vavřička, had not vaccinated his two children against polio, hepatitis B and tetanus. His fine was for 3,500 Czech crowns ($130). 

Their case was decided Thursday as vaccine requirements brought on by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic ripple across the globe. Due to the outbreak, only the presiding judge of the European Court of Human Rights was present Thursday in the Strasbourg courtroom to announce the ruling. All of the other parties participated remotely. 

“The Court holds, by 16 votes to 1, that there has been no violation of the convention,” Judge Róbert Spanó told an entirely empty courtroom.

During a hearing last year, lawyers for the families argued compulsory vaccinations violated the right to privacy and freedom of conscience. “The parents are loving and caring parents for whom the interest of their children is an absolute priority,” lawyer Zuzana Candigliota told the court. 

The Czech government argued its vaccination program was supported by medical experts and had widespread benefits. “Vaccination is the most cost-effective and safe way to prevent diseases and vaccination refusal is a threat to public health,” said Vít Alexander Schorm, on behalf of the Czech Republic, at the July hearing. 

For the 17-judge-panel today, the Czech vaccination requirements stem from “an obligation on states to place the best interests of the child, and also those of children as a group, at the centre of all decisions affecting their health and development.”

“When it comes to immunization, the objective should be that every child is protected against serious diseases,” the ruling continues.

The parents argued that they faced an undue burden by not being able to send their children to preschool, but the court disagreed, highlighting the need to protect children who are unable to be vaccinated. “The possibility of attendance at preschool of children who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons depends on a very high rate of vaccination among other children against contagious diseases,” the Grand Chamber found. 

Earlier this year, survey data showed that vaccine hesitancy in the Czech Republic was the highest in Europe. Only between 30% and 40% of Czechs have said they wanted to take the Covid-19 vaccine. The problem isn’t new, 2018 survey data from the European Union found that only 44% of the country’s inhabitants agreed with the statement: “Vaccines are important, safe, effective and compatible with religious beliefs.” 

The court was established in 1959 by the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the civil and political rights of the citizens of the 47 European member states that are parties to the treaty.   

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