VaccineSmarts
by Richard Rupp and Bridget Hawkins

Dear VaccineSmarts,

I’ve been told that some doctor’s offices decline to see children when the parents refuse to follow the recommended vaccine schedule. Why would doctors do that?

Alecs, Texas City 

Dear Alecs,

There is a lot of controversy surrounding this issue. You’re right that some parents refuse to vaccinate their children, and there are several reasons why a physician would decline to see them.

Physicians want what’s best for their patients. Unvaccinated children are not only a risk to themselves; they’re also a risk for other patients.

Germs spread readily in a doctor’s office. Chickenpox usually spreads through the air we breathe. If a child with chickenpox is in a waiting room, he will expose everyone coming into the office.

This is especially dangerous for babies and patients with medical conditions that place them at risk. People do not bring their children to the doctor’s office to get them sick.

Some children are unable to be vaccinated because of age or because they have a medical condition such as cancer. These children rely on “herd immunity” for their protection.

Herd immunity is a term that describes the vaccination of the people in a community that can provide a measure of protection for those who are not able to be vaccinated themselves.

This is because vaccine-preventable diseases are spread from person to person, and if the germ cannot spread to another person because everyone else has been vaccinated, it breaks the cycle of transmission.

However, it is only an effective strategy when about 80 to 90 percent of the people in the community have been vaccinated (or have natural immunity from having the disease).

As more and more people refuse to be vaccinated, this percentage drops and diseases start affecting more people in that community.

No physician refuses children who are unable to be vaccinated because of age or weak immune systems. Some doctors only decline to see children that remain unvaccinated because of parental choice.

Another thing to consider is that parents refusing vaccinations may blame physicians if their child gets sick. We know of a family where the father gave his infant son whooping cough and neither was vaccinated.

The son almost died and now suffers from seizures. The parents blamed and threatened to sue the father’s and the baby’s physicians for failing to recognize the disease early enough.

The truth is that whooping cough looks like a common cold until it’s too late to effectively treat.

The final reason that doctors may refuse to treat unvaccinated children is that the doctors are taking a stand and sending a message.

They believe that vaccination is one of the most important methods of protecting children from illness and even death. And we would agree.

Dr. Richard Rupp is a pediatrician and member of UTMB's Sealy Center for Vaccine Development. Bridget Hawkins, Ph.D., is the assistant director of the Sealy Center for Vaccine Development. This column is supported by a UTMB President's Cabinet Award to provide information about vaccines. Visit www.utmb.edu/scvd/vaccinesmarts for more information.