So last night I was watching Private Practice on Living, yes I know please don’t judge me, and I have to say that I was very impressed with the way they handled the subject of vaccination, the central story in this weeks episode. Unlike some TV shows that I won’t mention, cough Eli Stone cough, Private Practice took an unashamedly pro vaccination approach to the subject with not a single one of the main characters voicing anything but 100% support for vaccines and the vaccination program. On top of that they pulled no punches when addressing the anti-vaccination movement and at various points in the episode described them as “idiots”, “scientifically illiterate” and “conspiracy theorists”. The message was clear and unambiguous. Vaccines are good, they save lives and the anti-vaccination movement doesn’t know what it is talking about.
I also liked the simple but effective way they told the story. The story focused on a mother with three boys, the oldest of which suffered from autism that she believed was a direct result of vaccination. Every time she brought this up she was politely, sympathetically but directly told that this was not the case, that all the evidence showed that there was no link between autism and vaccination. Each time this happened she would come back one of the typical anti-vaccination replies. A mother just knows these things. You can’t be sure that vaccination didn’t cause his autism. He was vaccinated and the light immediately went out in his eyes. All powerful arguments to be sure but all anecdotal and unsupported by any evidence.
Anyway the reason she is at the doctors is because her middle son is sick and it quickly becomes evident that he has measles. It is also revealed that neither the middle or the youngest son have been vaccinated due to the mothers conviction that vaccination is what caused her oldest son’s autism. The doctors pled with her to let them vaccinate the youngest son but she won’t let them. After all, she says, measles isn’t that bad, it’s a childhood disease that kids get to toughen up their immune system. Nothing to worry about. Well, as I am sure you can guess, this quickly proves not to be the case and the sick child is rushed to hospital, but still the mother will not let the doctors vaccinate her youngest son.
The middle son gets sicker and sicker and the mother begs the doctors to help him while still resolutely refusing to let them protect her youngest child. The middle son starts to convulse and almost stops breathing but the doctors bring him back and then, in desperation, one of the characters rushes out and vaccinates the youngest son. The mother goes crazy, screaming at the doctors, accusing them of assault, telling them that they are over-reacting and have given her son autism. She threatens to sue but before she can say anything more an alarm goes off and a code blue is sounded. He middle son’s heart has stopped beating. The doctors rush to save him but despite working on him for almost half an hour he dies.
There is a very powerful scene after this with the mother and the doctor sitting in the hallway outside the now dead son’s room. The mother, tears running down her face, announces that she can’t believe this happened, that she thought measles was just like getting a cold. The doctor says nothing; he doesn’t need to as the point is all too painfully clear. Measles is a killer and the very best weapon we have against it is vaccination. Yes there are reasons to be cautious, some people can react badly to vaccines, but they do not cause autism and your “mommy instinct” is no match for years of well-researched medical science.
Private Practice may be a little relationship focused and soap operary at times but I was very impressed with how they handled this episode. It is all too common on TV and in the news for them to take either the “balanced” approach of making it seem like both sides have equally valid arguments or to squarely side with the anti-vaccination movement. It is refreshing to see the topic handled in a way that is entertaining, educational and solidly based upon carefully researched scientific evidence. I just wish it were only a story.