Dr Tom: Why I believe in vaccinations
Belief is an interesting thing. It is the cause of much of the conflict in the world, our communities, and in our own homes. It can seriously affect our wellbeing. Current conflict of beliefs sees war, fatal riots in the US, and political resignations and resurrections in our own land.
Beliefs are layered down and they become more deeply entrenched through a process known as the Ladder of Inference. Beliefs can cause actions or inactions, such as vaccinating or not vaccinating yourselves or your children.
For years, I believed vaccination was relatively safe and prevented terrible diseases. I vaccinated myself, my children and thousands of patients in my medical practices. The belief was based on what I had learnt in getting a First Class Honours degree in molecular genetics, a further five years of study to get my medical degree then about 10 years' clinical experience as a doctor.
So, my belief was seriously challenged with news that vaccination could potentially be linked to autism. I felt sick. I couldn't sleep. I became a doctor to help people, not harm them, myself or my own children. Contrary to some beliefs, we don't become doctors to work for pharmaceutical companies and we are not rewarded by them with perks and overseas travel.
So how could this be? I needed to know more what research was out there to suggest or prove a link with vaccination and autism. My enquiry over 10 years ago showed there was no link and in 2010 the original study was discredited and the author criticised for serious misconduct.
Proper studies of 500,000 Danish children, 27,000 Canadian children and Japanese children have shown no link with vaccination and autism. To my medical and scientific brain there is no link: vaccination is safe while not vaccinating is unsafe and dangerous. As I write this article, there are reports of vaccinations rates being below 60 per cent in some areas, and diseases like polio are making a return.
If I had a belief that vaccination was harmful, I wouldn't vaccinate my kids or myself. While writing this article I did a Google search on vaccination and autism. One site listed a number of scientific papers supporting the argument. Now, reading scientific papers is hard work – even for someone who has spent their life doing so. The terms and names of compounds and cellular processes are confusing and hard to make sense of. But what I could make sense of, was that the articles had nothing to do with vaccination and autism together but definitions of cellular pathways unrelated to either entity.
So, this strengthens the belief that, as a scientist, as a father and as a doctor, vaccination is not only safe, but vital for our health and wellbeing, both as individuals and as communities.
My belief is also that we should debate the issue – not the characters of the people who have conflicting beliefs. Some people have a belief in a sentinel being in the sky, in a god or gods they have never seen. To try and argue otherwise can be frustrating for both sides. If their beliefs don't create actions that impede others wellbeing, they are both entitled to them.
It's when a belief causes harm to others and especially unprotected infants who don't yet have beliefs that the debate can get heated.
The key is education without judgement. In simple terms, play the ball and not the individual, understand their beliefs and re-examine your own, whatever they may be.
Dr Tom Mulholland is an Emergency Department doctor and GP with more than 25 years' experience in New Zealand. He's currently on a mission, tackling health missions around the world.