Some pediatric practices are taking a strong stand in favor of vaccinations by refusing to treat children whose parents refuse to immunize them. As a pediatrician, this caught my attention because I can't think of any other time when I have seen my colleagues have such strong feelings about an issue that they would elect not to take care of a child.
We got into this field to care for children, not to refuse them care, so why are practices all over the country adopting such a firm policy? It has to do with a staunch regard for protecting the health of all children, even if that means not caring for some.
The safety and effectiveness of immunizations have been proven conclusively. According to the World Health Organization, immunizations save the lives of more than 3 million children worldwide each year and help millions more avoid severe illness, lengthy hospitalization and disability. In addition to their success at preventing illnesses, immunizations have no more risks or side effects than many commonly prescribed medications. That is not to say that they don't carry some risks, but so do aspirin, Tylenol and every other medication and treatment on the market.
The Internet is filled with misinformation, conjecture and conspiracy theories that have led some parents to be so fearful of immunizations that they refuse to immunize altogether. In some communities this refusal has led to outbreaks and sometimes deaths from diseases that are completely preventable.
Some parents argue that whether to immunize or not is a personal choice, but an unimmunized child endangers more than just himself. Clusters of unimmunized children can weaken "herd immunity," and that's when outbreaks happen. Herd immunity refers to the phenomenon where so many people in a population are immune to a disease that even if one person happens to contract the illness, it cannot spread to others.
Herd immunity is what protects children who cannot be safely immunized because of a medical condition. It also protects those few people whose immunity wanes over time and is what often protects children whose parents don't immunize them.
I called a few of the pediatricians who have adopted this new policy and I discovered that they are not abandoning their patients. Far from it. This small, but growing, group of doctors is so committed to the health of all children that they are willing to spend a significant amount of time (sometimes hours) explaining the benefits and risks of immunizations to parents who are hesitant.
It is understandable that a parent might be frightened by unsubstantiated and sensational claims, but one of the fundamental aspects of the parent-pediatrician relationship is trust.
If parents still refuse to consent to immunization after a detailed discussion of their concerns, then these practitioners suggest that the family find a pediatrician who agrees with that philosophy.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
See more of Dr. Thornton's stories here.