I may be a person of science but I am also a parent and I can understand the concerns of some parents when it comes to immunising their children. The scientific evidence in favour may be overwhelming, but there is still that nagging worry: what if the vaccine seriously harms my child?
Unsurprisingly, the issue can lead to disputes between parents as to whether a child should be immunised, and the courts have ultimately had to decide the matter. The latest example of this is the case B (A Child: Immunisation), decided by His Honour Judge Bellamy last week.
The case concerned a five-year-old girl, ‘B’, the only child of her parents, who have separated. Prior to the separation B had all of the immunisations recommended for a child of her age. However, three further vaccinations are now due or overdue: the combined diphtheria/tetanus/whooping cough/polio immunisation; the combined measles/mumps/rubella immunisation (‘MMR’); and the influenza vaccine. The mother wanted these vaccines to be administered, but the father objected.
The father’s objections were all the ones that might be expected: the need for further vaccinations for B had not been established, the proposed vaccinations would put B’s health at greater risk than is necessary, the science involved in immunology is not settled, and so on.
Judge Bellamy said that he had no reason to believe that the father’s objections were not reflective of genuine and sincerely held beliefs. However, he said, the mother did not accept that to be the case, although he did not expand upon what the mother believed to be the father’s true motivation for opposing the vaccinations.
Inevitably, the case turned upon the scientific evidence, including that of a jointly instructed medical expert witness, who responded to all of the father’s concerns. The expert accepted that no vaccination is 100% risk-free. However, he explained that there was a very wide body of research evidence concerning the risks of individual vaccines and, on the other side of the balance, the risks that arise from contracting the diseases concerned.
As a consequence, the known risks of particular vaccines can, with confidence, be balanced against the known risks of not being immunised with those vaccines. Accordingly, rational, balanced, informed decisions can be made.
Unsurprisingly Judge Bellamy was satisfied that it was in B’s best welfare interests that she should receive the vaccines, and he made a specific issue order to the effect that the vaccines should be administered. However, he made clear that his judgment was not a commentary on whether immunisation is a good thing or a bad thing generally:
“I am not saying anything about the merits of vaccination more widely. I do not in any way seek to dictate how this issue should be approached in other situations. I am concerned only to determine what is in B’s best welfare interests.”
Notwithstanding this, he pointed out that this was the sixth occasion when the court had had to determine whether a child should be vaccinated in circumstances where a birth parent objected. On each occasion, the court concluded that the child concerned should receive the recommended vaccine.
“With respect to the vaccines with which I am concerned, in the absence of new peer-reviewed research evidence indicating significant concern for the efficacy and/or safety of one of those vaccines, it is difficult to see how a challenge based on efficacy or safety would be likely to succeed.”
So, for now, it would seem that a parent’s objections to these immunisations are unlikely to be upheld unless of course there is medical evidence to suggest that the vaccinations are not appropriate for this particular child.
You can read the full judgment here. It is fairly lengthy but if you have an interest in the topic it provides a useful summary of the different infections covered by the three vaccines, the scientific position and the law, including those previous decisions on immunisation.