The danger of immunisation hesitancy

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 Photo: Getty Images

I approached motherhood with great uncertainty. I wasn't sure whether I'd cope with the sleep deprivation (I didn't). I wasn't keen on any of the birthing options presented in antenatal classes (I ended up trying most of them and still don't like any).

One thing I was certain about is that I would immunise my children. Everything in my life's experience led to this: I studied health science, I have family members who are doctors, I was immunised, and I travelled overseas and seen how fortunate we are in Australia to have such a good immunisation program.

Immunisation was one aspect of parenthood I didn't need to agonise over.

Without such strong conviction however, I could easily have joined the ranks of those who are 'immunisation hesitant'.

Immunisation hesitancy is a term that has gained traction in the past few years, recognising that an individual's decisions around immunisation are not as black and white as previously thought.

It is now recognised that there is a spectrum – including those (like me) who unquestionably accept the benefit of vaccines, those who have minor concerns but vaccinate anyway, those who partially vaccinate, and those who have no intention of ever doing so (often referred to as 'vaccine objectors' or 'anti-vaxxers'). Most importantly, it is recognised that people can change their views over time.

It was my daughter's prematurity that made me hesitate. By the time her first immunisation was due, she was only a couple of weeks past her due date and weighed a tiny 2.5kg. She was so little, so vulnerable. My heart and gut were telling me not to put her through this ordeal. I was still recovering from the pre-eclampsia that prompted her early birth and, at that stage, even going out of the house for a short walk was a big event.

Had I been less certain about my position on immunisation, it would have been easy to let the appointment slide.

I didn't do this because I know the benefits of immunisation – for her as an individual and for our community which, given that I hope she follows in my footsteps and travels the world, includes all 7.5 billion people who live on this earth.

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But if I'd been less sure and not turned up for the immunisation that day, or in the following weeks, what then? Once you've missed the first vaccination, how do you front up for the second?

She (and I) managed the immunisation okay (I have since learned it is far less stressful to take a baby for immunisations than a four-year old!) but, four hours later, my conviction was tested again. My daughter, a baby who was placid and rarely cried, woke with screaming cries that could not be placated with feeding, nappy changes or comfort. She was clearly in great pain and distress.

Fortunately, my sister had suggested I buy some baby Panadol before her immunisation, as a pain and fever reaction is not uncommon – but I was also in distress once I realised that I had no idea how much Panadol I could safely give her, as her weight was so far below any of the guidelines on the bottle. She screamed and I cried while I waited for my call to the Maternal Healthline to be answered.

The Panadol settled her but the distress of the experience stayed with me. Had I been at all concerned about possible detrimental impacts of immunisation on a child's health, it would have been very easy to not show up for her next round of jabs.

I had two friends who had decided not to immunise their children. I deliberately didn't talk with them about this for fear of creating a rift. My family and other friends were also strongly in support of immunisation, but it would have been easy for me to share concerns with these two friends and seek their support for choosing not to immunise.

Had I been living then where I do now – in one of the areas of Australia with the lowest rates of immunisation – it would have been even easier to find a community of people who would have further strengthened my hesitancy.

I did continue with the immunisation schedule for my daughter and then for my second-born son, and I am still strongly supportive of immunisation (we will all get our flu shot, too).

And I developed the useful strategy of putting immunisations on the list of things my husband could manage better than me!

World Immunisation Week runs from 24-30 April. Information about immunisation is available at www.immunise.health.gov.au. A good detailed exploration of immunisation concerns is the SBS documentary 'Jabbed' at www.sbs.com.au/shows/jabbed