Vaccination a no brainer

02:07, Jun 25 2014

There's been a measles outbreak happening in Hamilton, which is awful. Schools closing, trips cancelled, and people admitted to hospital. The worst thing about it is that it doesn't need to be happening.

In the distant past, epidemics were treated as acts of God. The only way to treat them was to avoid contact with other people and pray. Now it's easy to prevent many of the diseases that literally plagued us in the past. All we have to do is get vaccinated.

Some people don't believe this. I don't blame them. Well-meaning people, many of them parents, are subjected to a barrage of misinformation about the nature of vaccines. Much of it comes from the vociferous anti-vaccine lobby. The thrust of their argument is that vaccines might really injure your child, might or even probably cause autism, might not actually work at all! Who can blame parents for opting not to vaccinate, if it's a choice between their child running a gauntlet of neurological disorders and catching a treatable disease?

The problem is that the anti-vaccination scenario commonly presented doesn't reflect reality. Not even slightly. Putting it another way: it's not true. Or yet another way: the anti-vaccine movement is lying to you.

But here I go again, framing a contentious issue in adversarial terms. I struggle with how to approach this one.

I think people, having chosen not to vaccinate themselves or their children, are going to bat for their decision. That's normal.


Good parents only want the best for their children. They put themselves through hell trying to make the right decisions. Their ideas and motives are questioned by all sorts, from peers, to their own parents, to health professionals, to random newspaper columnists.

I'll try empathy. When I am being honest, I think that, if I had chosen not to vaccinate my hypothetical children after trying to make sense of seemingly contradictory evidence, I would get very angry at all the people telling me I was wrong. "Goddamn it," I'd think, "I'm just trying to do the best for my kid."

So how might the issue best be framed? How can people be convinced of the truth?

I don't know. But it's an argument that has to be had. Too many people haven't been immunised, and this leaves others at risk, as we see in the current epidemic.

The fact is that vaccination shouldn't be contentious any more. Centuries of evidence support the efficacy of vaccination, beginning as far back as 1793 when Edward Jenner inoculated a servant's boy against smallpox with cowpox virus. Vaccination has been described by the World Health Organisation as the single greatest achievement in health, short of clean drinking water. Scares about vaccine effectiveness and safety have been around since Jenner, but they've all fallen in the face of evidence.

Now that the lie of an autism-vaccination link has been completely debunked, the scariest spectre raised by the anti-vaccination lobby is that of side-effects and allergic reactions. The truth here is that some small reaction is completely normal (and this is much less problematic than contracting the disease being vaccinated against.) Severe reactions against vaccines are incredibly rare. Put another way: you have a much higher chance of becoming severely ill from or dying of measles - a serious illness that anti-vaccination people routinely scoff at as "mild" and "easily treated" - than you do of becoming severely ill or dying from a vaccine side-effect.

But what you'll hear most from the anti-vaccine lobby is talk of "informed choice." Their line is that parents aren't truly informed about vaccines, and they offer alternative information - the always-powerful argument of "here's what THEY don't WANT you to know!" The difficulty with this is that properly informed choice is only possible if you've got a medical degree. Most of us truly know about as much about medicine and immunology as we do about the Large Hadron Collider. That's why it pays to listen to your doctor, not a Facebook friend with the picture of a sad child and scary text about vaccination. (I'll note quickly that I asked couple of medical-degree-sporting friends to makes sure I was on the right track with this article, before anyone fairly points out the obvious fact that I am not a doctor.)

It's worth remembering that for all the obfuscation about "informed choice", the one true goal of anti-vaccination lobbyists is for people not to vaccinate. They have their reasons for this. Some are alternative health practitioners who maliciously profit from those who mistrust mainstream medicine, but my guess is that most anti-vaccination lobbyists genuinely believe they are saving lives. They're doing the opposite.

Joshua Drummond is a Hamilton freelance illustrator and writer who promises not to write about vaccination for at least another week. His website is

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