Blog | Thursday, March 19, 2015

Measles vaccines and the right to refuse treatment

It's been amusing to watch Rand Paul, a doctor, trying to “clarify” comments he made suggesting that vaccines for kids should be a matter of parental choice. Conversely, Rick Perry some years ago had to walk back his aggressive pro-vaccine stance, when he championed mandating HPV vaccines for young girls. This political clumsiness is not restricted to the GOP. In 2008, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton argued that “more research was needed on vaccines' potential side effects.” Presidential candidates, it seems, have not all been vaccinated against panderitis.

Of course, I recognize an informed individual's right to refuse treatment. An adult with appendicitis has a right to refuse appendectomy, against the advice of the surgeon.

Does a parent have a right to deny the measles vaccine for their kids? I don't think so. Here's why:
• Medical evidence provides overwhelming support for the vaccine's safety and efficacy;
• Unvaccinated children pose a health risk to other school children;
• The claim that any vaccine causes autism has been vigorously refuted; and
• Adults do not have an absolute right to deny children medical care.

I doubt that a 15-month-old child can make an informed choice about the measles vaccine. Would those infants who have been denied the vaccine, support this decision when they reach the age of understanding?

Parents have rights also. They have the right and the responsibility to make health decisions for their kids. This right, like all rights, is not inviolable. Parents should not be able to deny a life-saving blood transfusion or curative chemotherapy to a minor child who does not have the capacity to understand the ramifications of a denial of care. In contrast, some kids should be permitted to make their own decisions even if they have not reached the age of majority. A 17-year-old Jehovah's Witness, for example, has a more legitimate argument in turning down a blood transfusion than would a 5-year-old.

Immunizations are a towering achievement of the medical profession that has saved millions of lives. No, they are not perfect, but they work much better than nearly every medical treatment that doctors prescribe. Moreover, vaccinating kids offers a public health benefit that extends far beyond the youngster who is vaccinated.

If you are a libertarian who is suspicious of government, then go make a sign and protest. This is your right. But, vaccinate your kids. They have a right to good health. And, so do the rest of us.

This post by Michael Kirsch, MD, FACP, appeared at MD Whistleblower. Dr. Kirsch is a full time practicing physician and writer who addresses the joys and challenges of medical practice, including controversies in the doctor-patient relationship, medical ethics and measuring medical quality. When he's not writing, he's performing colonoscopies.