Two different factors brought me to this post: firstly my potentially obsessive fascination with the ethical issues surrounding vaccination, and secondly my unhealthy and frequent tendency to avoid my problems by binge-watching TV shows on Netflix.
I was enjoying one of my aforementioned Netflix binges, pretending that graduation wasn’t looming and that my life was totally on track, when I stumbled upon an interesting representation of the vaccine issue. I was watching a Grey’s Anatomy spinoff entitled Private Practice (try graduating with no life plan before you judge my TV habits). In the episode, a pediatrician named Dr. Freedman is treating a child presenting with symptoms of the common cold. In a stereotypically melodramatic fashion, Dr. Freedman eventually discovers that the kid has the measles. The child has two younger brothers, the older of whom has severe autism that his mother blames on immunization. As such, she is forcefully opposed to vaccination, to the point where she refuses to vaccinate her youngest son for fear of losing him to the same fate as his middle brother.
The oldest brother must be quarantined in a hospital, and his health rapidly deteriorates. Dr. Freedman continues urging the mother to vaccinate her youngest son, who stands to catch the measles from his oldest brother. Dr. Freedman’s genuine and intense concern for the youngest son goes unappreciated as the mother continues to refuse, getting more and more adamant as the episode continues.
Finally, moments after the oldest child has passed away in the quarantine ICU, Dr. Freedman gives the mother a look, turns away, and, in what I like to call “The True Shonda Rhimes Drama Strut”, marches over to the youngest child, vaccine in hand. The mother, initially confused and eventually horrified, runs screaming after Dr. Freedman, begging him to stop. In the pinnacle of dramatic tension, Dr. Freedman pokes the youngest child with the needle, and the camera pans to the mother, whose face falls tragically before she runs to kneel before her child and check him for any potential signs of autism (take a moment to appreciate how ridiculous that looks).
In a very clear lesson in the morality of vaccination administration, this episode shows Dr. Freedman’s overflowing concern for his patients, and his willingness to break CLEARLY DEFINED laws for the sake of his patients’ health.
I found this episode especially interesting because, unlike much of our focus on vaccination in class, Dr. Freedman is not concerned with the pubic health repercussions of leaving the potentially infected child unvaccinated (sidenote: if the child may be infected, administering a vaccine is the BEST way to take care of it. (Sarcasm.)). He is, instead, solely focused on the well-being of the child. This different perspective marks other vaccination motivations for doctors: preventative medicine on a case-by-case basis and the right of the child to safety from infectious disease.
There also exists here an angle on paternalism. Dr. Freedman overrides the mother’s right to make health decisions on behalf of her child, having clearly stated that there exists no medical connection between vaccination and autism. This overstepping of boundaries, while hugely illegal, is an interesting decision on behalf of the doctor. Dr. Freedman, ignoring all opinions and decisions made by the mother, barges through and vaccinates the child because he knows it is the right thing to do, parental consent be damned.
Overall, I felt this episode raised some very important and difficult questions about vaccination and parental control over a child’s medical decisions. The focus on individuals rather than public health in the debate about vaccination was also a nice shift. The show may be hyper-dramatized to the point of ridiculousness, but they definitely got their point across, loud and clear.
Childress, James F, Faden, R.R., Gaare, R.D., Gostin, L.O., Kahn, J., Bonnie, R.J., Kass, N.E., Mastroianni, A.C., Moreno, J.D. and Nieburg, P. “Public Health Ethics: Mapping the Terrain.” Arguing About Bioethics. By Stephen Holland. London: Routledge, 2012. 10075-0461. Kindle.
“Contamination.” Private Practice. American Broadcasting Company. Netflix. Web. 8 Jan. 2009.
Isaacs, D., H. A. Kilham, and H. Marshall. “Should Routine Childhood Immunizations Be Compulsory?” Arguing About Bioethics. Ed. Stephen Holland. New York: Routledge, 2012. 398-406. Kindle.