U.S. teens are defying parents to get vaccines. Here are the rules in Canada
The kids of anti-vaxxer parents are looking for ways to get vaccinations against their parents’ wishes as measles outbreaks are becoming more common around the world.
Vancouver has seen one case of measles this year. Across the border in Washington state, more than 50 cases of measles have been recorded since January. In Europe, officials are seeing a sharp increase in measles cases and in Ukraine, eight people have died of the disease.
Officials are blaming a lack of vaccinations — because MMR vaccine, which is administered to prevent measles, along with mumps and rubella, has gotten a bad reputation.
That’s largely in part because of a discredited paper from 1998 that linked the vaccine with autism. The paper was recanted by the medical journal it was published in, and the doctor who wrote it had his medical licence revoked because of conflicts of interest.
The article is still circulated online, especially in communities advocating against vaccinations.
But now, as the children of the anti-vaxxers grow up, they appear to be searching for their own agency.
Ethan Lindenberger wrote on Reddit in December that he researched vaccines after he realized he was the only one of his peers not vaccinated. He asked for advice on how to get vaccines.
He told the Washington Post that he walked into an Ohio Department of Health office on Dec. 17 and received vaccines for hepatitis A, hepatitis B, influenza and HPV.
“I feel like I’ve made the best decision possible,” he said. “[My mother’s] claims were largely debunked by the scientific community.
“I looked at articles from the CDC … and even historical evidence that vaccines are important, and I decided this is a lot less black and white than I thought.”
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Other stories of younger children have also circulated online.
On a Reddit forum in January, someone identified only as a minor from Washington — where there is currently a measles outbreak — asked how to bypass the need for parental consent and get vaccinated: “My mother refuses to budge on her position, and I still demand to be fully vaccinated.”
The issues of minors receiving vaccines raises questions about consent laws in health care — in certain places (like Ohio) people have to wait until they’re 18 to be able to consent to vaccines and other health procedures.
Lindenberger told the Washington Post that an option to empower teens and raise immunization rates could be to lower the age of consent.
What’s the law in Canada?
In Canada, health legislation is regulated provincially, so the age at which you can get consent changes across the country.
“As children get older and move into their teenage years, they gradually develop more cognitive abilities and abilities to make decisions about their own health and well-being,” said pediatrician Mike Dickinson, former head of the Canadian Paediatric Society.
“It would be really easy if there was just a certain age that we could draw a line in the sand and say below this you’re not competent and above this you are. But as we all know, that it’s a real spectrum and kids develop these abilities at their own rate.”
But in general, most provinces will recognize a teenager’s right to consent to vaccines as long as the child is able to show they understand the consequences, Dickinson explained.
In Manitoba, the public health protocol states they need a parent’s permission for a vaccine only if the teenager is under 16. If they are older — unless there are extenuating circumstances like delayed mental development — a 16-year-old is able to get his or her own vaccines.
In B.C., it is generally accepted that a child in Grade 9 is able to consent, according to the B.C. health department website.
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It’s less clear in other provinces and territories.
In Alberta and Saskatchewan, 18 is the “presumed” age of consent for health care, but a health care provider may assess the teen to determine if they are a “mature minor.” If so, they would be able to give or revoke their own consent.
“If a teen has the ability to understand the risks and the benefits of what they’re agreeing to and seem to be making a reasonable decision that is good for their health, then we would respect that and support that,” Dickinson said.
In Ontario, Nova Scotia, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut there is no stipulated age of consent when it comes to health care.
But in Ontario, the Substitute Decisions Act presumes that people over 16 years are able to give consent.
In New Brunswick, Newfoundland, P.E.I. and Yukon, the age of consent for health care is 16. Anyone under 16 can be considered a mature minor if the health care provider determines they’re capable of understanding — and if their decision is consistent with their own best interests, continued health and well-being.
But Dickinson said that family members are an important part of a teenager’s life, so efforts are normally made to keep parents and caregivers abreast of any decisions.
“Whenever possible, we try and keep family members and parents involved in decision-making processes … But at the end of the day, it’s the patient and the teen who is our primary responsibility,” he said.
He explained that many vaccines, especially the flu shot, can be administered at your local pharmacy. Others can be found at public health clinics or from your doctor.
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