Hanson under fire over 'no jab, no play' criticism
Controversial Queensland Senator Pauline Hanson comes under fire over her criticism of the federal government's 'no jab, no play' vaccination program.
He'd been getting sicker and sicker. This middle manager – boss to me and two dozen others – had been coughing for weeks. His skin was grey, and he struggled to regain his breath after each coughing fit.
Finally, he got a medical diagnosis. Whooping cough. Oh, he wheezed, waving a damp hand. My kids weren't vaccinated against that. I must have caught it from them. But it's not that bad.
Try telling that to one of his colleagues – a woman in her early 30s who, at the time, was glowing with that gleaming, rounded, flush of late pregnancy.
I have no idea whether she was vaccinated.
But if she hadn't been, the risk to her baby, when it was born, would have been real. According to the Victorian government's health advice, babies exposed to whooping cough risk contracting pneumonia, suffering seizures or encephalopathy (basically, the baby's brain could become damaged), or even dying.
And it's not just whooping cough that's potentially deadly to foetuses and babies.
A pregnant woman exposed to rubella has an increased risk of miscarriage or stillbirth. Her baby, if it survives, can develop birth defects. Exposure to chicken pox can cause birth defects. Exposure to measles increases the risk of miscarriage and stillbirth, and exposure to influenza increases the risk of miscarriage or stillbirth, and increases the risk of pregnant women contracting a serious illness or even dying.
Many of these are illnesses that modern medicine had made significant advances towards stamping out.
Measles, for example, had been officially eliminated from Australia a decade ago. And then the quiet resistance began – not from the viruses, but from people believing their own feelings about immunisations were equal in value to the decades of scientific research conducted by experts.
The most infuriating thing about this quiet resistance is that it relies on the rest of us doing the right thing and vaccinating ourselves and our children for the non-believers to coast through on the tide of herd immunity.
But now the balance is tipping, and vaccination rates in some parts of the country for measles are as low as 57 per cent, far below the 95 per cent vaccination rate needed for so-called herd immunity to be maintained.
Since the mouth from the south (of Queensland), Senator Pauline Hanson, mouthed off about vaccinations last weekend, the anti-vaccination crew have been enjoying a renewed moment in the sun.
Appearing on the ABC's Insiders on last Sunday week, Senator Hanson neatly tapped into the "my feelings are equally as valid as your experts" thinking.
Suggesting parents log on to Dr Google and investigate the value of vaccinations for themselves, Senator Hanson said: "I advise parents to go out and do their own research with regards to this. No one is going to care any more about the child than the parents themselves. Make an informed decision."
(While she later apologised for recommending parents also investigate whether their children are allergic to vaccines by taking a simple test – there is no such test, which Senator Hanson later acknowledged – parents within the anti-vaccination movement recognised the secret handshake of a fellow anti-authoritarian traveller.)
Senator Hanson went on: "What I don't like about it is the blackmailing that's happening with the government. Don't do that to people. That's a dictatorship."
No, Senator. State and federal government initiatives known as "no-jab, no play", and "no-jab no pay" are hardly blackmail. Both initiatives were introduced over mounting concerns about preventable disease outbreaks. They are there to protect us, and our children.
A look inside the Facebook pages of anti-vaccination groups is an illustrative peek behind the anti-vax curtain. While they're mostly secret groups, there are a few people who join them under assumed names, and leak the contents of the groups to the medical community – and the media.
One is Anti-Vaccination Australia. Its members were this week particularly incensed over media reports that some doctors were refusing to treat un-vaccinated children in their surgeries, for fear the children could spread disease to other patients.
Responses ranged from, "Evil incarnate. Any doctor who is stupid enough to vaccinate. Period", to people recommending parents treat their children's illnesses with homeopathy and naturopathy, cannabis oil, and cuddles.
One asked: "What about the children who can't be vaccinated, the ones we are all supposed to sacrifice our children for? Will they treat them. Fortunately if you don't vaccinate you are less likely to ever need a doctor."
There is so much stupid in this comment, it's difficult to know where to begin.
So let us just note this.
Too often, the vaccination "debate" is framed as being one of individual choice. But there are a lot of people who do not have a choice and who should be able to expect to be protected by herd immunity.
They include people with compromised immune systems – those who've undergone chemotherapy perhaps, or the elderly (whose immunity might have worn off), people living with HIV or newborns (babies begin their vaccination schedule at eight weeks).
While some vaccines are safe for those with compromised immune systems, others – like the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccination, which is made from live viruses, are not.
Coinciding with Senator Hanson's comments was the release of startling new research showing one in 11 parents believe vaccination causes autism, and 30 per cent are unsure about whether vaccines cause autism.
So here's a non-scientific solution to all of this, based on my personal feelings (which are, apparently, just as valid as anything else): if you don't want to vaccinate your children, fine. Just keep them home and away from the rest of us.
Bianca Hall is deputy editor of federal politics for Fairfax Media.
* An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that unborn babies are at risk of contracting pneumonia, suffering seizures or encephalopathy if they are exposed to pertussis.