To jab or not to jab: the case for vaccination

By North & South magazine
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Baby Charlotte. Image: North & South magazine

The father of a six-year-old New Zealand girl who lost all four of her limbs to meningitis is staggered some parents still choose not to vaccinate their children.

"Baby Charlotte", as she was known throughout the country, nearly died from the disease when she was just six months old.

“We have friends here who have seen everything Charlotte’s gone through, and still refuse to vaccinate their kids,” her father Perry Bisman told North & South. “It’s their choice, but it staggers me. At the end of the day, do you want the possibility of what happened to Charlotte to happen to your own child? If it’s a disease that’s preventable, why would you allow that possibility, instead of taking a very small, calculated risk by having the vaccine?”

Last year a Unicef report on child welfare ranked New Zealand’s immunisation rates among the worst in the OECD, particularly for whooping cough and measles. A Government campaign has pushed the rate of fully immunised two-year-olds to 85 per cent but that’s still below the numbers needed for community protection (known as “herd immunity”) to stop infections circulating. Babies born in New Zealand are five times more at risk of catching whooping cough than in Australia.

Anti-immunisation activists claim the pharmaceutical industry is profiteering from vaccines which cause harmful side effects. Horror stories of serious injury and even deaths allegedly caused by them flood the internet. At the same time, devastating diseases such as polio and diphtheria, which were epidemic only a few decades ago, have virtually disappeared.

But parents who don't vaccinate and want their children to build up "natural" immunity are misguided, says Lisbeth Alley, a nurse and immunisation facilitator with the Immunisation Advisory Centre (IMAC).

“Some parents honestly believe that if they feed their children organic food, keep them in a lovely, clean environment, look after them and love them, they’ll be protected. But these diseases are still out there, just under the radar, and if our community protection drops off the risks go up hugely for everyone.”

More than 100,000 girls aged 12 to 18 have joined the Government’s $177 million HPV immunisation programme, which began a nationwide roll out in September 2008. But numbers signing up for the Gardasil vaccine, which protects against the main causes of cervical cancer and genital warts, have fallen since an Upper Hutt teenager died suddenly six months after receiving her final injection. Her death has been referred to the coroner, although any causal link is considered extremely unlikely.

Since Gardasil went onto the market in 2006, some 54 million doses have been distributed to more than 100 countries worldwide. To date, not a single death has been officially attributed to the vaccine.

Lawyer Shelley Duggan sees vaccination as a community responsibility and didn’t hesitate to give her three children their shots. “If you want advice about the law, you go to a lawyer. If you want advice about vaccinations, you ask a doctor who has a medical background and is in the best position to judge,” she says.

“I just don’t believe our Government would want to deliberately hurt young babies. All the other issues you read about as a parent — stillbirth, miscarriage, infertility — I know people these things have happened to. But I’ve never known anyone who’s had any problems with vaccinations other than a grizzly child.”

Why do you think New Zealand’s immunisation rate is so low? Should New Zealand follow the lead of Australia and offer financial incentives to parents who vaccinate their children? Have your say below.

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