Private Practice Takes On Anti-Vaxxers

I have a lot of guilty TV pleasures, one of which is Private Practice, a spin-off of Grey’s Anatomy, on ABC.  However, I gained a new level of respect for the show upon watching last nights episode, which dealt with anti-vaxxers and the vaccine-autism myth, and did so quite well.  You can watch the episode on but I will give a brief summary (spoiler alert) after the jump.  A mother of three brings her sons to Dr. Cooper Freedman, the pediatrician at Oceanside Wellness.  The eldest of the three sons, Jeffery, has autism, and the family just got back from an experimental treatment program in Switzerland.  However, they are at the doctors office for the second oldest son, Michael, who according to the mother, “caught a cold on the plane.”  However, Cooper quickly realizes that that Michael has the measles.  It is made clear that the mother has not vaccinated her two younger sons, Michael and  Will, after Jeffery showed symptoms of autism around the same time he was vaccinated.  Cooper tries to convince the mother that there is no link between vaccinations and autism, but the mother interjects, claiming that she has spoken to “dozens of parents” and it was like “a light went out in him” after he was vaccinated.  Cooper is unable to convice the mother to vaccinate.

We then see Cooper talking to the other doctors in the practice about the situation.  They are currently in the process of shutting their doors and looking at all their patients records to see whether they have been vaccinated or whether are at risk for catching the measles from Michael.  There is some disagreement among the doctors about whether practices should refuse to treat patients who have not been vaccinated, but it is clear that all of the doctors agree that vaccinations do not cause autism.  Here is the dialog from that scene:

Dr. Naomi Bennet: Whether or not to vaccinate should not even be open for debate

Dr. Cooper Freedman: Well, it isn’t, but I agree with the Academy of American Pediatrics that we shouldn’t abandon patients who choose not to vaccinate.

Dr. Peter Wilder: Cooper’s right.  We can’t kick a kid out just cause the parents believe in a conspiracy theory about vaccines.

Dr. Sam Bennet: The CDC is clear, vaccines do not cause autism, they save lives, end of story.

The strong pro-vaccination stance from these TV doctors is refreshing.  I was worried that the show would feel the need to present two sides of an issue in which one side is clearly right (as the media  so often does).

Micheal’s conditions worsens and he ends up in the ICU.  Cooper tries again to convince the mother to vaccinate her youngest son, who is obviously at risk for getting the measles from his brother, but she still objects,  telling the doctor: “I don’t care what you know.  I know what I know.  I know what I lost.  I can’t risk it again.”  

Cooper is talking to the rest of the doctors again and some of them suggest that he report the mother to family services, since she is “knowingly putting her child at risk for getting really sick.”  However, two of the doctors object to this (interestingly, the psychiatrist and the eastern medicine guy), stating that it should be a parents choice whether or not to vaccinate.

Meanwhile, Michael is just getting worse.  He is unable to breathe and Cooper intubates him.  After doing so, Cooper walks out into the lobby and gives Will, the youngest son, the MMR vaccine.  Obviously, the mother freaks out and threatens to sue.  Just as she is yelling at Cooper, there is a code blue from Michael’s room.  Cooper is unable to resuscitate him, and he dies.

I thought it was very brave of the show to take on anti-vaxxers, and I’m betting they are going to get some very angry emails in the next few days.  I also think they handled the issue quite well.  With people like Jenny McCarthy out there, we need more voices in the media dispelling the vaccine-autism myth.

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  1. January 10, 2009 at 1:46 am —

    This episode of Private Practice, along with the recent comment by Seth Myers on Weekend Update about the new trends in home schooling to avoid vaccinations will lead to a new trend of dying of polio has me optimistic that a backlash against this crap is beginning and is very much needed. If anyone wants to read about how crappy polio is, Chapter 1 of Mia Farrows book What Falls Away will hit you like a gut punch. If South Park would only do a vaccination episode…hint hint.

  2. FFFearlesss
    January 11, 2009 at 9:40 am —

    I don’t think doctors should refuse treatment of people who don’t vaccinate. I think it would actually have a reverse effect in that it would affirm to the anti-vaxxers that doctors are inherently evil and you get one story of a doctor “refusing to treat” a child and the public starts to believe that doctors really are evil.

    I confess that I have been in the anti-vax camp for the last few years. I have finally come around, slowly, and with great pains because it’s hard to let go of fears that you’re putting your kids in danger. Thanks to blogs like Orac’s pointing me to research I’m finally getting my kids vaccinated.

    I think that the anti-vax movement as a whole will eventually swing back the other way. Honestly, I think this will be a generational thing. This is the first generation where people have had access to a tool like Google and felt that it somehow gave them equal research capabilities as their doctors. Once the drunk on information thing dissipates, I think people will start to trust their doctors again…. as long as the doctors don’t do any bad P.R. things to make everything think they’re evil.

    Also I think that once medicine shows what DOES cause autism instead of what DOESN’T, that will go a long way toward easing fears.

  3. Indigo
    January 19, 2009 at 7:59 pm —

    This has been a massive point of contention between a friend and me for some time. I’m appalled that she says she would never vaccinate her children (she doesn’t have any yet, but wants them badly). I can’t quite pin down her reasoning behind the refusal, but it seems to depend on the belief that all Western medicine is poison in one form or another. I’ve tried to tell her about diptheria, polio, rubella and so on, and the fact that she never contracted these diseases is largely because she and all the people around her were vaccinated. For some reason, she chooses to handwave this and say “that could never happen now”. The frustration is incredible.

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