To Protect Other Patients, Some Doctors Are Showing Those Who Refuse to Vaccinate the Door

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The explanation process is a big part of what keeps the policy within the guidelines of medical ethics. Dr. Nathan Carlin, who for six years has been an associate professor at the McGovern Center for Humanities & Ethics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, says there's a right way a doctor should go about doing what Weir and her colleagues are doing with vaccination policies.

"The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that doctors do not dismiss patients," says Carlin. "You're supposed to keep having conversations to try and change their minds. You're not supposed to 'fire' them, but refer them to another practice if you can't convince them. The main ethical issue there is that you want people to stay connected to the med profession so they don't get really angry at doctors and just forgo medicine altogether."

Weir remains within ethical guidelines even when turning away new patients. As a doctor, she is legally obliged to treat someone only if that person is in an emergency situation. When new patients are introduced at her office, they are informed of the vaccination policy. For those who are non-vaccinating, Weir will generally spend a month or two talking with them and addressing their concerns. Thus far she has been able to convince every single vaccination detractor she's come into professional contact with to see the benefit of vaccination.

"I can understand the fear," says Weir. "The medical literature can be dense and intimidating, but if I'm a doctor sitting there explaining it to them, they are more willing to listen and weigh it against what they've read online. It can be hard to pull people out of this labyrinth."

Others, like her coworker who ended up in the unresolved shouting match against the oncologist, are not as successful and end up losing patients to doctors who don't insist on a vaccination regimen.

"There seem to be two types of parents opposed to vaccination," says Weir. "Most just want their baby to be okay, but there are a small group of them who say that but they aren't really concerned with that. They are more interested in proving their conspiracy theory right. And there's nothing we can do about that. It's illegal for a doctor to treat a child against a parent's wishes, even if the child asks for it. So it becomes generational, and you end up with another small tribe of people who don't want to vaccinate."

Carlin sees the ethical reason for creating a 100 percent vaccinated environment for patients.

"You could be putting other patients at risk in the waiting room," he says. "The MMR isn't recommended in most cases until a child is 12 months old. So if you have a two-year-old with the measles and a six-month-old that is too young for the shot, it becomes unfair to the infant. I think parents have a reason to be upset about that. And you have adults with autoimmune disorders who could really suffer from all sorts of diseases that spread and can be prevented."

A family that falls into both categories lives in League City. Jennifer Coppock has a grocery list of such disorders in addition to a severe food allergy. Coppock has been diagnosed with, in no particular order, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, antiphospholipid antibody syndrome (an autoimmune disease that causes severe blood clots) and chronic fatigue syndrome.

"At one point, it gets a little ludicrous naming everything I have," laughs Coppock.

As a child she was fully vaccinated, and she never had a single problem with vaccines until she became pregnant. A booster shot gave her a slight reaction but nothing major. After her pregnancy, though, she went in for a routine flu shot, and her system went, in her words, completely screwy.

The flu shot left her with Bell's palsy, a disorder that causes partial facial paralysis. She was also stricken with an eight-month case of vertigo that was so severe she couldn't even ride in a car. Thankfully both cleared up, but her doctor advised her not to get flu shots in the future unless a particularly dangerous or deadly strain was going around. Given her autoimmune problems, every flu season poses a hard choice.

"For other people, it's a cold they get over and move on from," says Coppock. "For me, it's three months with my system on fire."

Coppock's ten-year-old daughter, Emma, has not inherited the genetic markers that would indicate she would share her mother's various conditions. However, Coppock has passed her food allergies on to her daughter and they, too, have taken vaccination off the table for the girl thanks to a terrible reaction she experienced.

When she was nine, Emma played catch-up with a couple of vaccines she had missed as well as a flu shot. After her doctor's visit, she ended up homebound for nine straight months, being prescribed adult-strength Dramamine until she got better. Since the family's physician was unable to determine which vaccination Emma had reacted badly to, it was decided that the girl should probably forgo any more.

"Our doctor said there hadn't been a measles outbreak in years and that we were probably safe," Coppock says.

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Jef Rouner is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner