Dr Lance O'Sullivan: It was when my daughter got sick that I realised how important immunisation is
It was 1996 and we were young parents. I was at medical school when I came upon an anti-immunisation pamphlet left in one of our lecture theatres.
I was suspicious of the establishment at the time. You need to understand, I had grown up a welfare-dependent "half-caste" (I hate that term) boy living with his mother, escaping from a life of alcohol, crime and a level of violence that I would not tolerate for my daughters. An under-achiever, I was expelled from two secondary schools. I feel I had a reason to be angry at "the system".
Then I became a father. It changed my life. I needed to be a responsible adult caring for a son, then a daughter – eventually seven children. We were young parents and wanted to do only the best for these precious beings.
I read the pamphlet. It described "studies" in the Netherlands into communities that didn't look like mine, but I took little persuasion. I stated our second child, our little daughter Te Miringa, would not be immunised.
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At the time my wife Tracy was working as a nurse at the local medical centre and immunising children daily. Yet this was my protest against the establishment that I so mistrusted.
Fifteen months later, we had a scare. Te Miringa became unwell with high fever and a body rash and the doctors were concerned as there was a measles outbreak locally. And I realised the information from the Netherlands did not reflect my reality.
We got Te Miringa immunised.
One year later, we were admitted to Starship Hospital with Te Miringa with a severe eye infection – peri orbital cellulitis requiring one week of intravenous antibiotics. I remember the doctors on the ward round asking if our child was immunised, because historically the most common cause for this potentially fatal condition (it can lead to brain infection and abscess and death) was Haemophilus Influenza.
I recall their relief and ours when they advised us that the fact she was immunised had all but eliminated this killer condition from the list of culprits. I recall the pride when I could say that our child was fully immunised and as protected as possible, knowing that then, like now, that while we could not provide 100 per cent cover from every ailment, we had made the best decision.
Te Miringa is now on a pathway to practicing medicine at my old medical school.
LATE-NIGHT SHOUTING MATCH
Twenty years later and three weeks ago on a cold Kaitaia night, I went to protest the presence of a movement that causes illness and misery by spreading misinformation – the same misinformation that, at a different time in my life, I had wanted to believe.
In the face of such overwhelming evidence of the benefit of immunisation and the dramatic reduction in life-ending or life-altering medical conditions, where does the liberty of free speech need to be measured against outcomes where babies die of whooping cough?
I have had to make the uncomfortable call to send a young baby with whooping cough symptoms home with her young mother to the family's cold, over-crowded home in a rural isolated community, not knowing if I would get shocking news the next day that the baby had deteriorated rapidly.
I may not be able to build that mother a new home but I can surely advocate for building the resilience of her baby with immunisations.
My protest on that night has been called many things: aggressive, intimidating, arrogant, childish and wrong. I don't disagree with some of these – it was a protest! This was not my first and will not be my last protest.
The benefit for me to have all of our children immunised is, yes, they will have greater protection for their health during their young life and now with more recent immunisations into their adult life.
The HPV vaccine is a challenging one for parents to consider. Immunising 12-year-old children against an infection that is sexually transmitted is a tough decision. However you only need to look at women with metastatic cervical cancer who are leaving behind their whanau in the prime of their lives to know how important these tough decisions are.
Looking after young children who are minutes away from dying from an obstructing warty mass in their throats caused by HPV infections transmitted to their upper airways during childbirth brings home the harsh reality that science has been and continues to be here to help the human race. Science helps people like me who work hard for the communities we care about.
PLAYING THE BALL, NOT THE MAN
I was trying to step away from this debate, as the anti-vaccination people who lurk in the shadows of social media play the man, not the ball.
The argument, however, is that people want to hear exactly what my objections are. I have just watched the Vaxxed movie and these are the reasons I reject the assertions made by this movement and this propaganda.
This movie is directed by a man who has been widely discredited and his initial "research" has been shown to be flawed. This fact is hard to go past, to view anything else he says as credible. While this movie has been well cinematographed, science and legitimate evidence has to prevail over what is essentially dramatised reality television.
There is no doubting the pain that the families of children with chronic severe health problems endure, but to use them to advance this misinformation is wrong.
Falsely associating severe health problems with immunisation is undermining one of the most effective public health strategies of our time, alongside access to clean water and sanitation. It's like saying that going outside on a fine day and putting an umbrella up caused the onset of a rainstorm – it does not stack up, much as emotionally-charged people might want it to.
The numbers of preventable diseases that harmed and killed our children have dramatically dropped since the introduction of vaccination programmes.
'MILLIONS OF KIDS' LIVES SAVED
The undeniable fact that is not presented in this movie is that millions of children's lives have been saved by vaccinations. This includes tens of thousands of New Zealand children being healthier or alive because of vaccinations.
This fact has not been acknowledged at all, yet there is constant reference to an underlying conspiracy that attempts to undermine the trust that the public should have in a global health system driven by people like myself and colleagues whose only aspiration is to serve our communities.
The allegation by a mere handful of people in this movie that hundreds of thousands of expert scientists around the world have been silenced, threatened or bribed to allow a shadowy movement to harm the world's children is ludicrous as well as unforgivably dangerous.
We see people on a daily basis getting better because of the treatments that someone, somewhere has spent time and effort to develop.
One supposed whistleblower – in all probability a disaffected employee or peer – has to be held up against thousands of scientists who would in all honesty would all covet the opportunity to discover the next new treatment for conditions such as Autism or uncover any supposed shadowy programme of deceit if this was true.
Effective uptake of immunisation programmes protects those vulnerable in our society who cannot be vaccinated. This includes young and old patients who have cancer or other serious medical conditions meaning they can not receive vaccinations.
It is a fact that autism rates have increased over recent decades but this is partly due to a better understanding of a complex syndrome that we previously put under the generic term of intellectual disability. Much like ADHD which was not well understood four decades ago, Autism Spectrum Disorder is now more often classified and appropriate support offered than we could offer previously.
There is growing evidence that genetic and environmental factors (pregnancy exposures, early childhood infections and what we consume) are significant contributors to the development of Autism in the face of clear evidence that vaccinations are not. Studies have shown that changes in the parts of the brain (neocortex) associated with autism are seen in early pregnancy, suggesting this condition has a genetic component.
Autism societies around the world and numerous parents with autistic children agree: immunisation is safe. It is a complete insult to any parent who has an autistic child to somehow suggest they might have been responsible for their child having autism, by the fact they allowed them to be vaccinated, when in fact the scientific evidence increasingly shows that there are biological and genetic factors that contribute to the development of autism.
The assertion that Big Pharma companies are raking in millions belies the fact that vaccinations are probably the least lucrative product these businesses could be developing and marketing. The most lucrative products are medications that are developed to treat the excess of our lifestyles this being diabetes, heart disease, cancer and, would you believe it, erectile dysfunction!
Look at the spend in NZ on vaccinations by our very own Pharmac and you will see that it is only a fraction of what we spend on the above problems.
That is why I spoke up in Kaitaia.
I was not going to stand by and allow a lady who in all likelihood lives in a warm, dry and insulated mud brick solar-powered three-bedroom home where she home schools her 1.9 children to come to Kaitaia and peddle the flawed argument espoused by two white males of privilege who stand to profit from their roadshow – a circus that has, and will, claim the wellbeing and lives of children around the world.
This comes in a week when a Unicef report has given NZ a big F grade on how we care for our children. It is time for us to make a stand against anyone who would challenge our commitment to redeem ourselves as a country and society.
New Zealand is close to eradicating measles; any reduction in rates of immunisation will see the return of this awful disease.
We cannot allow misinformation like that of the anti-vaxxers to operate in the shadows and cause irreparable harm. We need to confront these people.
After Brexit, after Donald Trump's election, during this time of global upheaval it is easy to believe in government/corporate collusion, conspiracy theories and the establishment tricking us.
We cannot allow this suspicion and misinformation to triumph.
I know it can be confusing as a parent to know what are the best decisions to make for our children.
Education, relationships, mental health, careers, struggling against the demands of peers and the expectations of what is now a rapidly evolving global society all pose challenges for us parents to make the right calls for our children.
The health and wellbeing of our children is probably one of the most guarded aspects of parenting. Sometimes despite all the evidence, all the science and all the facts it might just come down to trust. Trust in someone to provide the best possible advice because we can not expect every citizen to have an expert view on every issue.
I believe in the absolute importance and safety of immunisations and I stand by my protest.
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- Sunday Star Times