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The Great Vaccination Divide

The tragic death in March of Western Australian baby, Riley Hughes, from whooping cough added momentum to the vaccination debate already well underway in much of the developed world. And recent bipartisan edicts linking child support payments and concessions to vaccination in Australia have placed the debate on the floor of Parliament, and on the airwaves of talkback radio. 

Fresh argument erupted soon after Riley’s death, when two panellists on the Sunrise breakfast television program suggested parents should look into both sides of the vaccination debate. In response, journalist and media personality Mia Freedman tweeted to one of the panellists, asking, “What are these ‘sides’ you talk about? On one side there is science. There is no ‘other’ side.”

Freedman and others may not like it, but there is a large group of people who believe there is, in fact, another side. A quick Google search will reveal dozens of websites making a raft of claims, all suggesting vaccinations should be avoided. Often, their “facts” clearly lack scientific substance and even logic, but some appear to be well-researched and supported. Social networking sites and discussion forums also blaze with passionate and often vitriolic exchanges whenever the issue raises its head. The key issue for “anti-vaxxers” is the belief that vaccines are unsafe—a seed first sown by now-discredited research suggesting a link between the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and autism. 

Adam*, a father to three unvaccinated children, recalls when his first child was born, “a nurse in the hospital asked us about vaccinating and we told her we’d decided not to. She lowered her voice and said, ‘Good on you. I don’t either because I’ve seen so many bad reactions.’ She also told us there was a doctor in town who doesn’t vaccinate his children due to his research and first-hand experience.” 

On most internet forums, the pro-vaccination crowd would at this moment insist vaccines are 100 per cent safe. However, even government health agencies recognise the risk of adverse reactions. In the case of data collected by Australia’s National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS), these adverse reactions aren’t always verified by medical personnel—and some of the reported effects include “screaming” and “fever,” exactly the response you’d expect and want from a healthy immune system. 

Significantly, NCIRS records reveal that in 2012, while nearly 10 million doses of vaccines were administered to Australian children and adults, there were only 1897 (0.02 per cent) adverse reactions. Of these, 137 were classed as serious, and in just 11 of these cases, vaccination was determined to be either the “certain” or “probable” cause of the reaction.

Yes, there are some risks associated with vaccines, but don’t the benefits far outweigh these rare events? Most anti-vaxxers would say No, and many would even go so far as to say vaccines don’t have any benefit whatsoever. Adam says, “If you check out the facts and statistics from much of the developed world, you’ll see that diseases like measles, polio and whooping cough were in rapid decline well before the introduction of vaccinations.” It’s a common argument, but does it hold water? 

According to the UK-based Vaccine Knowledge Project, “Before the [Haemophilus influenza type B] Hib vaccine was introduced in 1992, there were thousands of cases of Hib disease every year in the UK. Now there are almost none. Living conditions have not really changed since 1992, so the decline in Hib disease can only be down to the vaccine. Improved living conditions have also made almost no impact on chickenpox [which is not included in the UK vaccination schedule], an infectious disease which is just as common now as it ever was.

It’s also worth pondering that in the measles outbreak at the RMIT University graduation in Melbourne last December, out of the hundreds of people exposed to the virus, the only ones who contracted it were unvaccinated individuals.

However, anti-vaxxers can go even further in doubting the benefits of vaccinations, with a growing number viewing diseases such as measles as a harmless childhood ailment. Elise*, a mother of five, fully vaccinated her first two children, but not the others. Her daughter, Ava*, contracted measles at seven months. “She was miserable for a few days, and then it was over. Her body fought it. Look after your immune system and it will look after you,” Elise says. 

Others even welcome a brush with measles: Australian mother Stephanie Messenger epitomised this view in her self-published children’s book Melanie’s Marvellous Measles. So is measles just a harmless, or even helpful, rash?

Recent research has revealed that young babies who contract measles are at much higher risk of developing subacute sclerosing panencephalitis (SSPE) than older children. SSPE is a degenerative and fatal complication of measles and although it is classed as rare, its incidence is as high as one in 3300 measles cases—possibly even higher in infants.

Measles is definitely not as “marvellous” as some anti-vaxxers would have us believe.

Newcastle-based vaccination nurse, Chris Carr, whose five-year-old niece died from measles in the 1970s, was herself born with sight and hearing problems after her mother contracted rubella during pregnancy. She believes the success of immunisation programs is their own worst enemy, because most hospital staff today have never seen a baby with bleeding eyes because of whooping cough or suffering strokes from Hib. In 2007, Carr had the unenviable task of comforting a couple whose baby had contracted Hib and was partly paralysed as a result. They had chosen not to vaccinate. 

Anti-vaxxers pose many other questions and concerns that can’t be addressed in an article of this length. But committees, made up of qualified experts, do carefully consider the data and evidence before making recommendations on vaccinations to the government. Nevertheless, anti-vaxxers have sincere concerns that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly or scornfully. 

Regardless of where you stand on the vaccination debate, however, it may be worth remembering the wise counsel from the Bible: “Be kind . . . to one another” (Ephesians 4:32) . . . even when you disagree. 

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