Issues Magazine

Immunisation: Measles, Mumps & Misinformation

By Loretta Marron

“Bring back the pox! Bring back polio! Bring back whooping cough, mumps and measles! Your children will be stronger if they contract disease,” according to a book recently pulled from Australia’s biggest online book store.

Written as a children’s bedtime story, Melanie’s Marvellous Measles is a discussion between a mother and her daughter after a friend contracts measles. The mother wants her to catch the disease so that she can build up her “immune systems naturally”. So should we vaccinate our children?

Australian Medical Association President, Dr Steve Hambleton, has witnessed first-hand the terror felt by parents of children extremely ill with this disease, and was horrified by the book. He recommended its withdrawal from sale.

In the face of a backlash from parent groups, BookWorld delisted the book and Fishpond posted it was “unavailable”. However, the book remains available as an e-book and remains for sale on Amazon and several high profile anti-vaccination websites both here and overseas.

Over the past 8 years, non-vaccinated children accounted for more than half of Queensland’s child deaths from notifiable diseases. NSW recently reported its worst epidemic in 14 years. The number of cases in a recent outbreak of measles in Wales, UK, reached over 1170. Around 140,000 people die from measles worldwide each year. Historically, measles and its complications were more deadly than polio and killed hundreds of Australians.

Vaccination is an emotive issue for some new parents. It does come with some risks, but the majority of reactions are minor. Safety studies are conducted before vaccines are released to the public, and safety monitoring is ongoing. Serious side-effects are extremely rare. The benefits greatly outweigh their risks.

With these old preventable diseases, whose disastrous consequences were never known by modern parents, now resurfacing, not vaccinating your children can be a much greater risk than having them vaccinated. Whooping cough, for example, has killed eight Australian infants since 2008 and there were nearly 40,000 recorded cases of it here in 2011.

Vaccination works, if a full course is given. Infant mortality in Australia, nearly 2.5% in 1960, is now less than 0.5% of live births. Vaccination has played a large part in that reduction. Thanks to vaccination, paediatric HiB infection and polio have now virtually disappeared in Australia.

Community immunity (“herd” immunity), which for decades has offered protection to those unable to be immunised – newborns too young to be vaccinated, pregnant women and immunocompromised individuals – is gradually disappearing because of the refusal of some parents to have their children vaccinated. So, if you choose not to vaccine your child you may not just be harming them but putting other people’s health at risk.

The rise in “vaccine refusers”, influenced by scaremongering by those promoting inaccurate anti-vaccination information, is clearly contributing to the return of vaccine-preventable diseases. Here in Australia, more than 70,000 children are not fully immunised.

The growing danger posed by the anti-vaccination lobbyists cannot be ignored but there are groups that are fighting against their influence. The “No Jab No Play” campaign and Stop the AVN have been making progress, with legislation currently in the pipeline that will enable childcare centres in NSW and Queensland to refuse entry to unvaccinated children. The name on the vaccine objection forms has been changed from “conscientious objectors” to “vaccine refusers” and there have been calls for a nationally consistent policy on immunisation with a recommendation that parents will have to show schools documentation of their children’s vaccination history.

However, those with vested interests are fighting back by offering a “buddy” system so that the parents of unvaccinated children do not lose their $726 family tax benefit and recommending that they pay the $25 to join the Church of Conscious Living, which was set up with the express purpose of providing “believers” with a religious exemption from vaccination.

The message is straightforward: immunisation prevents outbreaks of disease and saves many lives. If you are a new parent and are confused about whether or not to vaccinate your baby, share your concerns with your general practitioner, paediatrician or pharmacist. Surely your baby’s life and well-being are worth this discussion?

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