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Teenagers of anti-vax parents in the United States are turning to internet sites like Reddit for advice and information on if and how they can catch up on their childhood vaccines.
“I haven’t got vaccines since elementary school,” wrote one teenaged female in Florida last month. “Dad fell down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole, and my Mom agrees with him…The goal is to get all my vaccines updated without ruining my otherwise healthy relationship with my parents.”
According to Ian Gemmill, a doctor in Kingston, Ont. and former chair of Immunize Canada, the scenario exists in Canada, too.
“It’s not unheard of to have a child whose parents don’t believe in vaccination to get to a certain point in their lives, and have done their own thinking about it, to ask to be vaccinated,” he says.
As evidenced by online discussions, however, it’s not always easy to get your vaccines as a minor in the United States, especially if you don’t want your parents to know about it. Which state you live in and your insurance coverage both come into play.
In Canada, teens will likely have an easier time–but an example in British Columbia in 2014 shows just how complex the situation can be. There, a 14-year-old girl gave her consent to a tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine from a public health nurse at school, but her parents, who had made the decision when she was younger not to vaccinate her, were outraged, saying their daughter felt too shy to question the nurse and was not mature enough to consent.
Throughout Canada, teenagers can consent to their own vaccines if the healthcare provider deems them mature enough to understand the implications of their decision.
“There is no age of consent specified in law in Ontario, so we go by the common law, which allows people to make decisions if they understand the risks and benefits of the intervention that is being considered,” says Gemmill. “It doesn’t prevent an angry parent from calling, but it really involves individual decision-making and doing what is best for oneself.”
These ‘mature minors’, as many provinces call them, are young people who have demonstrated decision-making abilities in other areas of life, and are “capable of fully appreciating the nature and consequences of medical treatment and can give legally effective consent,” according the Canadian Paediatric Society.
“Through a professional interaction, a doctor or nurse gets a sense of this person, what level of maturity they’re at and whether they are able to understand,” says Gemmill. For example, the healthcare provider might say, “OK, I told you the risks of the disease and the risks and benefits of this vaccine, now tell me you understand what I just told you,” says Gemmill.
This view of consent also applies to teenagers who go to medical appointments on their own, without a parent present. For example, if a 16-year-old who has had her routine childhood vaccinations goes to her family doctor and asks for a tetanus booster because she is applying to be a camp counsellor, “I think that in many cases, many professionals would feel a comfort level to go ahead,” says Gemmill.
Back on Reddit, many people are applauding the young teens who are taking their healthcare into their own hands. “If you end up having to choose between getting vaccinated and your parents finding out, I highly recommend getting vaccinated,” said one user. “Give your health the importance it deserves.”