The choice to vaccinate your child
How your unvaccinated child impacts the community
I respect autonomy in medicine.
I respect that parents have the right to choose what is best for their children regarding their medical care. There are certain situations in medicine where these decisions truly only affect you and your family.
If you choose to turn your child’s car seat around at 6 months, I will argue adamantly that this is not safe and is unreasonable, but if you leave and decide to anyway, it probably will only affect you and your child should something happen.
If you choose that vaccines are not right for you family, I will discuss with you the benefits and risks of vaccines but ultimately, it only affects you and your child, right?
Let me just give you two hypothetical situations:
1. Your unvaccinated 6 year old has fever and a rash, but you have a planned visit with your old high-school friend who lives hours away. No big deal, you say, your child probably just has a virus so you plan to treat with home care, manage his fever and symptoms which would all be very appropriate, generally. Your friend comes for her visit but brings along big news … they’re pregnant. In fact, she’s 12 weeks along and has been waiting for this visit to reveal it to you.
Your friend leaves and the weekend passes … now your child is getting worse so you decide to go on in and you get a preliminary diagnosis of measles.
Fortunately, unlike some of the vaccine-preventable diseases, measles does not appear to cause birth defects. However, there are some risks of increased miscarriage and premature labor. If one of these things occurs, the percentage of moms who have a miscarriage and enter labor prematurely is so high, it would never be clear if the measles was the cause or if it would’ve simply happened anyway. Even if your child doesn’t have the measles after all, you should tell your pregnant friend and everyone will be pretty stressed for the next few days waiting for test results.
2. You travel with your unvaccinated 18-year-old college freshman on a mission trip to Africa during his first Christmas break from college. You have an amazing time there working in an orphanage, a school and volunteering to sit with people in a local hospital.
Everyone comes back to the United States feeling great so you load up your son and take him back to his college dorm to start the next semester. Two days after getting back to school (eight days after getting home from Africa), he develops fever which progresses over the next day to having a stiff neck. He is subsequently hospitalized and diagnosed with meningococcal meningitis. The average incubation period for meningococcal meningitis is four days, but ranges from 2-10 days.
Hopefully, because most of the dorm will be vaccinated against meningitis, your child’s case will be isolated but there’s no guarantee. Consider other children who used a religious exemption or exemption of conscious. Consider those that didn’t have a good response to the vaccine and remain vulnerable. Consider the next two weeks and how stressful it will be for the other students, their families and the school as they wait to see if anyone else develops symptoms of meningitis.
Medical autonomy does give you the right to choose to vaccinate or not; however, we all live in a social context as well. If you choose not to vaccinate, it's important that those around you are aware of your decision.
It's important that you consider that the illnesses your kids could contract could harm others around them. You need to make responsible decisions in accordance with this fact. We should use caution about having our sick children out at any point, but this is specifically important with children who are not vaccinated.
Justin Smith, M.D., is a Cook Children's pediatrician in Lewisville . He attended University of Texas, Southwestern Medical School and did his pediatric training at Baylor College of Medicine. He joins Cook Children's after practicing in his hometown of Abilene for four years. He has a particular interest in development, behavior and care for children struggling with obesity. In his spare time, he enjoys playing with his 3 young children, exercising, reading and writing about parenting and pediatric health issues.