Unvaccinated children being refused healthcare, Australian survey shows

Melissa Davey
Unvaccinated children under six were most likely to be refused care, the Australian child health poll found. Photograph: John Abbate/Getty Images

The president of the Australian Medical Association, Dr Michael Gannon, says he is horrified by findings from a survey showing that healthcare practitioners are refusing to treat unvaccinated children.

The findings come from the latest Australian child health poll, a nationally representative survey led by the Royal Children’s hospital in Melbourne, of 1,945 adults with a total of 3,492 children.

The poll found that one in six Australian children who are not up-to-date with their vaccines, either because they’ve never been vaccinated or because their parents have let their vaccines lapse, have been refused treatment by a healthcare provider.

Among children whose parents reported them as not being up-to-date, children under six were most likely to be refused care (25%), followed by 21% of primary school-aged children and 5% of teenagers.

While the poll did not examine how the refusal occurred – for example at the time of booking an appointment or during a consultation – Gannon said children should not be blamed for their parents’ decision to reject the overwhelming evidence in favour of vaccination. “It’s not best practice and it’s not ethical practice,” Gannon said.

“Doctors are duty bound to provide care, regardless of race, religion or lifestyle choices. It’s entirely inappropriate for children to be denied care, despite the understandable concern about having unvaccinated children in the waiting room. I’d be horrified if children were being denied care.”

The director of the child health poll, paediatrician Dr Anthea Rhodes, said it was the first Australian data that examined whether healthcare practitioners were refusing to treat unvaccinated children. While studies from the US have found a similar phenomenon was occurring there, Rhodes said more research was needed into what was happening in Australia.

She said some of the reasons US practitioners gave for refusing care to unvaccinated children were fears of those children carrying infectious diseases that could be passed on to babies too young to be vaccinated against certain diseases or to children who have medical reasons for being unable to receive vaccinations. There were also concerns the unvaccinated children themselves could become infected through exposure to diseases in waiting rooms and clinics.

“The next question to ask of Australian practitioners is why and how did the refusal of care happen,” Rhodes said.

“Whether or not clinicians have a right to refuse care to unvaccinated children has been a debate on the table for some time in the US but it’s the first time we have documented it occurring here in Australia.

“But the best way to get unvaccinated kids vaccinated is to build good relationships with their doctors, not by refusing care. It is important we remember that engagement with healthcare is the way to support these parents to vaccinate their children and to accept the overwhelming evidence that vaccines save lives.”

The poll also found that 74% of parents believed they should be informed about the number of children not up-to-date with vaccines in their child’s school, kindergarten or childcare centre; that seven out of 10 parents said that knowing the percentage of under-vaccinated children in a school or centre would influence their decision to send their child to that facility; and that nearly three-quarters of parents support a “no jab, no play” policy, believing children who are not up-to-date with vaccines should be refused access to childcare or kindergarten.

Rhodes also found many 47% of parents were confused about whether to delay vaccines when a child had a minor illness. Many incorrectly believed vaccination should be delayed in a well child on antibiotics, and one in five believed vaccination should be delayed in a child who had a reaction to a previous vaccine at the site of the injection, such as swelling or redness.

“Parents should really see their doctor or child healthcare nurse before deciding to delay a vaccination,” Rhodes said.

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