Our health police ordeal

The law ordered a baby to be immunised against hepatitis but, asks Angela Brooks, did the doctors take the case too far?

Daily Express Aug 1, 1996

Home is a four-bedroom, turn of the century house which echoes to the sound of laughter.

They keep goats, chickens and ducks on 17 acres of lush land and the house is stuffed with old prints and the sort of antiques that can be put to good use in a growing family----a well-thumped baby grand piano, well-thumbed antiquarian books and a brass-faced grandfather clock,.

Here are the hallmarks of a solid, secure and caring family. Yet within hours of the birth of their second child, armed police, social workers and three ambulance men had arrived at their home in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, to announce that they were taking their baby to hospital to have her vaccinated against hepatitis B.

And so began the ordeal of a family who had become probably the lust case of physical enforcement of immunisation anywhere in the UK. Dr Gordon Stewart, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at Glasgow University, comments that it was "a story of medical arrogance, leading to misuse of the law and of the failure of Government ministers to uphold policy that all childhood vaccinations are to be given only with parental consent".

The Bastians had agonised about whether to vaccinate Caecilia after their experience with immunising their first born, Benedikt, in 1993.

He broke out in dermatitis so severe that his arms had to be tied to his sides to stop him clawing at the itchy sores.

The couple couldn’t prove that the vaccine was the cause, but doctors could not prove it wasn’t.

The Bastians feel that their first mistake was to express their misgivings about immunising their expected child to the doctor at the ante-natal clinic.

Many weeks later, when Nita was seven months pregnant, a letter horn Dr Richard Smithson. of the Western Health and Social Services board, threatened court action if they withheld consent for the vaccine.

Nita was so terrified of delivering the baby in an NHS hospital that the couple planned for a home delivery. Albrecht, whose mother is a paediatrician with 20 years experience, swotted up on medical textbooks and sought independent medical opinion on the best course of action.

All those consulted leaders in their fields — believed the Bastians should avoid active immunisation, where the virus itself is injected into the body to stimulate resistance. They recommended a course of immnunoglobulin antibodies to ward off the onset of disease — an alternative the family was perfectly prepared to try.

But, within hours of the baby’s birth at home, legal proceedings began and Caecilia was made a ward of court.

The police who turned up at the Bastians’ home told Albrecht that, if he attempted to prevent the vaccination from being given, he could he charged with manslaughier later in life if the child died from hepatitis.

"We were made to feel like common criminals," he says. To avoid further distress, Albrecht agreed that he and his wife and baby would go to Erne Hospital, Enniskillen for the vaccination.

As soon as the news of the court order was received, a doctor took the baby from her weeping mother and injected the vaccine and immunoglobulin.

That evening in the Bastian household, Nita, Albrecht and Albrecht’s mother sat round the kitchen table. "I kept going through everything that had happened and thinking, ‘Where did I go wrong?’" says Albrecht.

Even now, Dr Smithson makes no excuses for the authority’s drastic measures. "We weren’t prepared to accept the parents’ refusal," he says. "In our society, parents do not have the right to do whatever they like with a child. They are not allowed to put their children at an unacceptably high risks and that’s what we feel the Bastians were doing."

Over the ensuing months, the health authority’s legal actions amounted to what, in the opinion of Dr Richard Nicholson, a physician and editor of The Bulletin Of Medical Ethics, was "a serious abuse of the family".

The Bastians were summoned to the High Court when the social services applied for permission to give their baby the first booster shot the following month.

WHEN Caecilia then broke out with a rash identical to Benedikt’s, the authority concluded that the timing of the rash was purely coincidental and had nothing to do with the jab.

By the time the authority demanded that the Bastians present their baby for the second booster (the third vaccine), Albrecht was at his wits’ end. He had to sign an assurance that the family would not flee with the child.

At the beginning of this year, a blood test showed that Caecilia had remarkable resistance to hepatitis B and a doctor contended that there was little point in inflicting a fourth shot. The health authority responded by telling the Bastians that they would still like her to have the fourth jab — but they wouldn’t enforce it. On June 27, the Wardship of Court order on Caecilia was lifted and, for the first time, the Bastians were free to come and go as they pleased.

"As a vetinary surgeon, all I can say is that I wouldn’t treat an animal the way the Western Health Board is treated us," says Alhrecht. "I wouldn’t treat an animal, without the farmer’s consent and if there were the slightest supicion that an animal would suffer a side-effect from an adverse reaction from a treatment or drug, I would not repeat that treatment."

He feels that his politeness, his old world courtesy may have been part of his family’s undoing.

"That’s not the way people here in Northern Ireland get their views across."

He questions whether this episode would have happened if he had been wealthy. "I would have had experts flown in from all over the world and, if I had been poor enough, I would have been entitled to legal aid and I would have been better able to fight them."

Little Caecilia will take her first steps alone any day now. Her parents will eventually be able to tell her tales of life’s rocky road but, for now, the promise of the future beckons and the past must be laid to rest.

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