Looking at the issue from the perspective of a rural GP, ‘Rastas’ has become a conscientious objector to conscientious objection to immunisation.
In 1798, Edward Jenner discovered that injecting attenuated smallpox virus into a person led to immunity from the disease, which had been until then the scourge of the western world.
Immunisation was born.
No longer would families need to produce twelve babies in order for two to survive into adulthood.
Over the following 150 years, vaccinations were developed for many infectious illnesses, and with them, child mortality plummeted.
Early in the 21st century, the anti-vaccination lobby proclaimed that Jenner was ‘wrong’.
They believed that all he had done was initiate a scientific conspiracy designed to harm children. More recently, legislation making it incumbent upon child care centres to not take in non-immunised children has engendered passionate views.
As a rural GP, I have witnessed this debate evolving for years, leading to the concept of ‘conscientious objectors’ and forms that need signing – further red-tape for doctors already overloaded with work.
More importantly, however, what has developed is a far wider philosophical discussion around immunisation, with implications affecting all of us.
Firstly, there is the dilemma of ‘Civil Liberties versus Social Responsibility’.
In the Western world, the rights of the individual have often superseded society’s needs – the rise of the ‘me’ generation. In my travels throughout the developing world, particularly in South East Asia, the opposite applies, with conformity to the greater good predominating. In these countries, vaccination programmes, such as those funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are finally eradicating preventable diseases. Previously, it had been only economic factors and geographical remoteness that impeded full vaccination of all infants and children in these poorer countries. Smallpox has been eradicated, with cholera, polio and diphtheria all rapidly disappearing. No parent would dream of objecting to the privilege of free childhood immunisation in these countries where victims of childhood polio can still be seen, tragically disabled and often begging on the streets. Parents in these countries reacted with shocked disbelief when I told them that Australian parents sometimes refuse vaccination for their children.
This raises the question – is the choice not to immunise the conceit of the privileged whose ignorance of third world reality drives their decision?
The worst non-immunisers, it appears, live in the wealthy northern suburbs of Sydney. They don’t see polio sufferers, or gravestones marked with the names of small children. So as far as they are concerned, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ drives their skewed world view, not unlike ignorance of third world famine and genocide.
The danger of knowledge gained via the Internet is also a factor in the vaccination debate. I truly applaud patients taking an active role in maintaining health and understanding their bodies. I value dissenting dialogue, when based on facts, and engage willingly in dialectics. However, after 35 years in practice I have yet to hear one ‘conscientious objector’ present a single balanced scientific fact to support his or her views. They read unilateral alternative material sourced from Google, quote questionable statistics and sometimes still unearth the fraudulent, disproved studies of the now discredited Andrew Wakefield, linking combined vaccines to autism. Clearly none of the ‘vaccine refusers’ (I applaud this new terminology) have come across studies documenting the Japanese experience of delaying the mumps measles vaccine until school-entry age alongside findings showing no decrease in the rate of autism appearing in toddlers.
Conspiracy theorists simply overlook the myriad of dissenting studies.
The Federal Government’s legislation that excludes non-immunised children from childcare centres is excellent, but may not have gone far enough. If its aim is to encourage forgetful parents to get their little ones immunized, at the risk of exclusion, it will help, as did the previous financial incentives.
However, if its aim is far more noble – to prevent the transmission of preventable diseases – an obvious fact has been overlooked. Children of forgetful parents are no more likely to spread infectious illnesses than children of ‘conscientious objectors’. For this legislation to fulfill this aim, ALL non-immunised children would have to be excluded, regardless of the reason for their status. On rare occasions there might be a bona fide health reason for a child not to be immunised, but these situations are rare, and usually vaccine specific.
When wearing seat belts in cars became compulsory, there were those who disagreed with this law and felt it contravened their civil liberties. In the face of irrefutable evidence supporting the value of seat-belts in preventing morbidity and mortality, these ‘seat-belt refusers’ were fined.
The evidence supporting vaccination is irrefutable.
After some soul searching, I became a conscientious objector to conscientious objection to immunisation. I do not waste tax payers’ money by claiming Medicare benefits for a useless ‘counselling’ session so that parents can still enroll their children in childcare and claim Family Tax Benefits. I am happy to discuss the topic, and offer balanced reading material, but I cannot sign a form stating that parents understand the risks of not vaccinating, because if they did, they would not make this misguided and illogical decision.