We Need To Vaccinate Against The Anti-Vaxxing Message
This week, NSW announced its 15th measles warning of the year.
Two babies, who were too young to be vaccinated themselves, had picked up this disease that just four short years ago was considered eradicated in Australia. Recent growth in anti-vaccination sentiment is leading to a resurgence of measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases, which aren’t just uncomfortable -- they have led to death in some who have contracted them.
As a doctor, I am horrified at the resurgence of previously controlled, deadly diseases. You don’t have to be a doctor to be horrified though. Anyone can see how distressing and concerning this is for vulnerable people, including young babies.
These cases reminded me to check my vaccinations, so I trotted off to my GP and had boosters for measles, mumps, rubella and diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. It was a simple, straightforward decision based off the science of disease prevention that I didn’t give any second thought to.
In other households around the world though, the thought process is much different. Since the dawn of vaccinations, there have been people who have declined to have vaccinations or questioned the efficacy, safety or necessity of the process. In the last couple of decades though, anti-vaccination sentiment has reached a fever pitch.
In order to prevent debilitating and sometimes life-threatening disease, it’s generally accepted that we need at least 93-96 percent of the population to be immune to that disease to stop it spreading. This is something called herd immunity. If a disease has nobody to infect, it can’t spread and simply dies out. Herd immunity is important because there are a number of people in our community who are too young to have vaccines or who can’t have vaccines for medical reasons.
Amongst children aged five years and younger, vaccination rates are between 90 to 94 percent. However, there are pockets around the country where vaccination rates are as low as 70 percent. The areas that tend to have the lowest rates of vaccination are affluent suburbs.
Anti-vaccination sentiment is a concerning trend that seems to be a favoured pastime of mummy bloggers, social media influencers and other self-proclaimed (but lacking credentials) 'health experts'. The concern over vaccines and subsequent avoidance of immunisations is being felt around the world, with outbreaks of previously controlled illnesses such as measles in Australia, the US and UK.
Disgraced and deregistered doctor Andrew Wakefield published an article in premier medical journal The Lancet in 1998 suggesting that the MMR vaccine caused autism. The article was subsequently disproven, and Wakefield was exposed as a fraud and stripped of his medical licence. But the damage was already done. Autism and MMR has been subsequently researched ad nauseum and there is no such link. In fact, vaccines are not only highly effective at preventing disease, they’re incredibly safe too.
This doesn’t stop the fear over such a result and other side effects from vaccines and feeds into vaccine avoidance.
Research has shown that people who are dubious over vaccinations tend to be people who have strong beliefs in conspiracies, have a strong disgust or fear towards needles and a strong belief in being an individual. There is also a serious lack of trust in the government or even healthcare workers that plays into the decision-making process.
Worryingly, social media influencers are the most influential factor on mothers who choose not to vaccinate their kids. Some such influencers make money from vulnerable people, selling tickets to seminars on how to avoid vaccinating kids.
One reason we may be reluctant to vaccinate is that we live in a time when most of us have never seen the horrific consequences of vaccine-preventable diseases. Parents who don’t vaccinate don’t want their kids to be sick; they want to protect them as much as the next person.
But this is not necessarily a real threat in their minds because they’ve never seen a kid with whooping cough or one with measles. It’s not real to them, and this feeds into conspiracies and a desperate need to exercise individual choice.
The question remains though, what are we going to do about this? Vaccine refusal is a very, very real threat to our health and requires urgent attention. Policies such as no-jab-no-play are not unreasonable but forcing vaccinations may actually feed into anti-vaccination sentiment. That doesn’t mean that regulation shouldn’t happen. Attacking those who already feel attacked probably may not have the desired effect and a more nuanced approach is necessary.
READ MORE: Measles Case Hits Perth's CBD
It’s going to be very important to try and educate as many people as possible who are on the fence about vaccinations and it would seem that building trust through open and understandable education is a vital part of ensuring public safety.
Targeted messages that get to the root of vaccine refusal as well ensuring that we show that vaccines are safe and effective are vital. Finally, no platform should be given to anyone who promotes anti-vaccination sentiment. Whether it be social media, public seminars or even universities handing out advanced degrees for anti-vaccination research, stopping people from spreading dangerous messages is a necessary part of protecting people who will otherwise do the right thing.
At the end of the day, ardent anti-vaxxers are unlikely to change their mind based on science or even emotion. They do not make up the bulk of people who are on the fence about getting vaccinated. We need to make the choice easy and to feel safe to get people to join the fight against disease even if they’re a little unsure about it.