With very few exceptions (such as in emergencies in which an unconscious patient needs emergency treatment or people who are mentally ill or lack the intellectual capacity to make decisions for themselves) adults in New Zealand have the right to give (or withhold) informed consent to any medical intervention. In the case of children below the age of 16, it is their parents (or legal guardians) who have the right to make decisions on their behalf in matters of health care.
A discussion of informed consent is available on the website of the Health and Disability Commissioner http://www.hdc.org.nz/education/informed-consent from which this excerpt is taken:
“A consumer is entitled to receive information about his or her condition, the options for treatment, and the anticipated outcome of each treatment option. This includes any associated physical, emotional, mental, social or sexual outcomes, expected risks and side effects of the treatment, the time frame in which these may occur, and any steps that can be taken to minimise them.
“Where relevant, ongoing implications of the procedure need to be discussed. The option of not agreeing to undergo the procedure, and the outcome of this option, should also be explained.
“If the provider recommends a particular option, he or she should give the reasons for the recommendation.
“The information provided should take into consideration the consumer’s individual circumstances, such as personal and family history, that may influence the treatment choices or outcomes.
“All viable options should be offered, not only those available through the publicly funded health system, and the cost of each option should be explained.”
In the case of medications that are administered to healthy people, such as vaccines, the informed consent process is particularly important since unlike many other medications which may give immediate benefits to the patient (such as by relieving pain or other debilitating symptoms or killing harmful microorganisms etc), a vaccine purports to prevent disease that may occur later in the life of a person who is currently healthy – or healthy enough to be vaccinated.
Some conditions are sufficiently uncommon that most people who are offered vaccination will never develop the condition – regardless of whether or not they choose to be vaccinated. (This is the case for meningococcal disease, for example.)
It is therefore crucial that vaccines are safe or there is the risk of harming the recipients’ health in the attempt to prevent a disease (such as meningococcal disease) which they may never contract. Where a vaccine has been associated with serious adverse effects, these risks should be communicated to the potential recipients (or their parents/guardians.)