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Parents' vaxxing clash goes to court

The measles epidemic brought a truce of sorts between warring parents who took their dispute over their child’s vaccinations to the Family Court.  

A mother who fought for two years to prevent her daughter being immunised says personalised risk assessment and genetics, not a rigid regime of shots, should guide vaccination decisions. The woman told a Family Court hearing in Auckland that she did not like the term “anti-vaxxer” and regarded herself as believing in “pro-informed choice”.

The case is one of a number of parental disputes over immunisation to reach court, and its timing coincided with the country’s measles epidemic, which led to an 11th-hour agreement by the mother for the now five-year-old child to receive the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine. That came during negotiations before the hearing that involved Associate Professor Rohan Ameratunga, an allergy specialist, who said he couldn’t find any conventional medical evidence that the child shouldn’t be vaccinated. “What we know so far is that half the kids who’ve had measles have been hospitalised. So it is not a trivial issue,” Ameratunga told the court. The mother also agreed that the child should receive the DTaP vaccine (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis).

In a decision released in mid-October, Judge David Burns ruled the child should also be vaccinated for Hepatitis B, on the basis of Ameratunga’s evidence that the benefits far outweighed the risks. But he said she did not have to get a polio vaccination, because the chance of contracting the disease was very low and was outweighed by the possible risk of an adverse reaction. The child had already been exposed to, and developed immunity to, chicken pox. He didn’t rule on the HPV vaccine (to protect against the human papilloma virus that can cause cervical cancer), which would be administered at the age of 12, when the girl herself would be able to have a say. Burns said the father had conceded the polio and chicken pox vaccinations were unnecessary and the only remaining disagreement was over the Hepatitis B immunisation. In ordering that the child should be vaccinated for Hepatitis B, the judge said it had very long-term benefits for the child, not only during her early years but as she became an adult likely to travel overseas.

The mother had previously argued that her child and her family had a history of dairy and gluten intolerance, eczema, food and chemical sensitivities and adverse reactions to medications, and therefore shouldn’t be immunised. In an earlier application, she sought to have the court receive affidavits from two well-known “anti-vax” American doctors: Dr Alvin Moss, an ethics lecturer at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, and Dr Toni Bark, who now practises as a homeopath and is the Chicago-based director of the Centre for Disease Prevention and Reversal. Moss, a nephrologist, appeared in the controversial Vaxxed documentary, in which he linked vaccines with autism. In a decision in February, Family Court judge Belinda Pidwell declined to admit the evidence, saying it was neither necessary nor helpful.

Read more: Kiwis still vulnerable to the next outbreak | There are hard questions to be answered over NZ’s role in Samoa’s measles epidemic | Samoa measles epidemic: Three children in one family killed

Burns’ decision noted the mother had said she wasn’t “anti-doctor”, the concept of immunisation was “fantastic” and she fully supported it for most people, but that her daughter was “so reactive” that “personalised and holistic medicines seemed the way forward to me to create the strongest and best self”.

She agreed with the National Health Service in the UK, which said personalised medicine was a move away from a “one size fits all” approach to patient care. She said her daughter’s gene tests had thrown up some “genetic red flags” that would help doctors take an individual approach. The woman told the court she was unvaccinated and that for her, measles was a “mild illness”. Burns said the mother’s position now “appears to support a phased and selected approach” to the ministry’s schedule.

A psychologist’s report said the child had been picking up on her mother’s anxieties around food issues, and said the child had been adversely affected by both parents’ handling of the conflict. The mother believed the issue was more about her former partner wanting to control her behaviour rather than what was in the best interests of the child.

In court, counsel for the father asked the mother if she had been “dragging the chain” over the measles vaccination after agreeing in late September that the child could receive the MMR shot. Although the immunisation was booked at her medical practice, the appointment was cancelled after the mother expressed concern her daughter had already been exposed to the virus during the Auckland outbreak.

Although two respected experts, including Professor Nikki Turner, director of the University of Auckland’s Immunisation Advisory Centre, had said the child should be vaccinated regardless, the mother told the court she had taken other medical advice, and didn’t want the child exposed to the “double whammy” of a vaccination if she was also incubating the virus.

The father said he wanted his daughter to be immunised in accordance with the Ministry of Health’s recommended schedule. He wanted to abide by the recommendations of Dr Ameratunga who, when asked what was best practice, answered, “If it were my daughter, I would ensure she has all of them.”

Burns’ decision summarised several other cases where disputes have arisen between parents over vaccinations, all of which went against the parent who opposed immunisation.

  • 2010: The chief executive of a district health board applied for a Guardianship Order so that a baby, whose mother was a carrier of Hepatitis B, could be vaccinated. The mother hadn’t consented for religious reasons, and “her belief was that God will heal Baby B if he were to become unwell”. The mother was ordered to take the baby to hospital for the shot.
  • 2012: A mother opposed immunisation for her three children, aged between nine and 14. The Family Court ruled the children should have access to professional advice, but the father was to solely determine whether they would be immunised, after taking their views and feelings into account.
  • 2016: A father applied for directions for immunisation after a mother said their three children had received “homeopathic vaccinations” and were healthy and well. She did not believe in vaccination as it was “contrary to her belief in holistic healing and symbiotic living”. The judge decided it was in the children’s best interests to be vaccinated.

This article was first published in the December 2019 issue of North & South as part of the feature Kiwis still vulnerable to the next outbreak. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.