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Posted on February 7, 2020 at 3:12 PM

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

Like others in our WebMd culture I often go to the internet to research my symptoms, looking for possible solutions. When a physician gives me a medical diagnosis I will often go to the internet and research the diagnosis. The internet was particularly helpful when I fractured my ankle and when I was going through dermatological therapies. While I was going through therapies for these injuries and disorders what I found was that the internet’s greatest contribution was its communities of people who had some of the same experiences as myself. Their experience and suggestions on how to properly convey your symptoms to a doctor, what therapies worked for them, how they remedied the side-effects of drug therapies were invaluable to me. Just knowing that you are not alone and having a place to vent fears, frustrations, and triumphs helped me get through many bouts of poor health. I am aware, however, that there is a lot of misinformation on the internet and following outsourced information can have dire consequences. This week a Denver mother found this out in the most devastating way when her 4 year old son died of the flu after she was advised by members of a Facebook anti-vaccination group to not fill a prescription for Tamiflu.

Although the child was not diagnosed with the flu, he did have a fever and had a seizure according to the mother’s Facebook post. Since multiple members of the child’s household had been diagnosed with the flu a doctor advised the mother that everyone, including the 4 year old child should take the common flu therapy Tamiflu. In the now deleted post the mother wrote “The doc prescribed Tamiflu I did not pick it up.” Reportedly the mother noted in her post that the home remedies she was using to treat her other children, including peppermint oil were not working. Commenters responded with suggestions of using breast milk, thyme, and elderberry to treat the child’s symptoms. The mother responded that she would try the home remedies. The next information that we have is that the child died.

The most glaring ethical violation in this case is that the mother chose to ignore medical advice for her child. The law (Prince vs. Massachusetts 321 US 58, 1944) has established the precedent that parents have freedom of religion and philosophy and are allowed to martyr themselves for the sake of their beliefs but that this freedom does not extend to children. According to the law, parents do not have absolute authority over their children and are not allowed to make medical decisions that endanger their child’s life. Here is an instance when the law and what is ethical align. It is unethical to put a child’s life at risk because the parent does not believe in the research that supports the value of vaccinations. Children rely on their parents or guardians to make decisions that keep them healthy and when parents decide to not vaccinate their children they put misinformation and their own hubris above the well-being of their child.

Another issue in this case is the question of how to responsibly research symptoms and illnesses and how to responsibly use the information we find on the internet. Using the internet is a privilege that many parents withhold from their children until they have reached an age of maturity because they are aware of the harmful information on the internet. Parents are aware of how impressionable children can be and can fall prey to misinformation. When it is an adult in question, however, we should be able to assume that they have reached the age of maturity and can reasonably sift through the internet’s copious amounts of information and find useful information. We should also be able to assume that adults will know when to seek the care of a doctor and when to follow their doctor’s medical advice. In fact, children rely on their parents’ ability to have these skills since they do not. In this case the mother actively sought out individuals who do not support medical research and used home remedies that are not backed by evidence-based research. This child’s mother failed to act in a reasonable manner that we should be able to expect from an adult.

The internet can be a great source of knowledge and community, especially when we are going through the hardships of illness. But the internet must be used responsibly, especially when we are using it in life and death manners for children who are unable to make decisions for themselves. I fully believe that the mother of this 4 year old child thought that she was acting in the best interest of her son but she ultimately failed him the minute she decided that a group of anti-vaccination strangers knew better than her doctor. Parents who choose to rely on false information and choose to go against reasonable and non-invasive medical advice have failed their children. Adults can martyr themselves for their beliefs but they should not make martyrs out of their children.

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