Words like bigot, misogynist, racist, and extremist are all thrown across our news, often to jab our ribs and provoke a response. Sometimes we are supposed to be outraged, other times we jeer or snicker. But mostly, whenever ignorance or bigotry reach our consciousness, we are disappointed. What these polarising differences really illuminate is our growing refusal to let stupidity slide. With the internet as our enabler, we have entered a new age of public shaming.
As a result, the Abbott Government basked in rare applause from many Australians, who otherwise loathe their policies, when they announced in April this year that parents refusing to vaccinate their children will have their childcare payments withdrawn. Only those radical sympathisers and proponents of ridiculously titled 'Anti-Vaccine Movement' will be affected. Their loss may total up to $15,000 in grants per child.
Supporters of anti-vaccination empower their argument by claiming they are agents of freedom and choice. They want this executive power without persecution by the law. But how justified is their cause in light of the near unanimous pro-vaccination support in the field of medicine? And why are they resisting vaccination in the first place?
Throughout history our research into vaccinations has played a crucial role in reducing the spread of contagious diseases, such as typhoid, tetanus and meningococcal. Many of these diseases, however, have begun to rear their heads recently as a result of the littered support for anti-vaccination.
The anti-vaccination movement is almost exclusively responsible for this resurgence, as children whose parents, in the name of personal choice- or perhaps even more absurdly, scepticism toward traditional science- have elected not to vaccinate themselves or their children. These people run the risk of becoming carriers for potentially fatal diseases.
Dr. Phil Cameron, a General Practitioner working in Rozelle, with thirty years professional experience under his belt, has experienced resistance to vaccinations first hand. It must be noted that he is a firm believer in vaccination, saying that "Vaccines safeguard populations against unavoidable, contagious diseases."
Anti-vaccine proponents have a reputation for basing many of their arguments on disinformation, for example the famous 1998 report by Andrew Wakefield, which linked measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccines to higher rates of autism. Wakefield's rationale was that the combination of MMR vaccines would overload toddler's immune systems and lead to "neurological and gastrointestinal problems." This hypothesis has since been viciously and systematically destroyed by scientific research, and abandoned by medical professionals (Dr. Cameron included). The MMR-autism association has been criticised as a tabloid media sensation rather than a credible scientific fact.
Dr. Cameron comments, "People make faulty assumptions based on research. ... autism is not caused on an infective basis, but rather on a genetic basis. There is no evidence that any vaccine causes increased rates of autism."
So, given the amount of research disproving Wakefield, why is it that medical reasoning is still used in the anti-vaccination debate? Surely it's not the fact that administering a vaccination may involve a small risk.
Dr. Cameron acknowledges that there is a small risk that the human body can react adversely to being vaccinated. "Most reactions would be discomfort, aches and pains for example. There's no denying that we in the medical profession acknowledge there can be some risks. But they are usually very minor when compared to severe consequences of contracting the disease. In terms of severe reactions, it's extremely unusual that a vaccine will cause it."
But what then about freedom of choice? Do we, as a society, and our government, as a political body, have the right to force people to look after themselves? As it stands, the policy says: look, you can choose to ignore medical realities, but we don't accept your decisions as astute, and seriously encourage you to think otherwise.
So maybe the more constructive way to perceive the coercive methods of policy in regards to vaccination is drawing attention away from the choices of consenting adults and towards the children that are victims of their parent's choices. In this strain of thought, policy-making circumvents the moral high horse of 'choice'; for the greater concern of children wellbeing.
Dr. Cameron reflects that, "if parents reject vaccinations on religious grounds, it's still important to offer the benefits of vaccination for the child's welfare. It's good to compromise and at least have some vaccinations done."
If the majority of 'conscientious objectors' to vaccination based their stance on religion, this argument would be totally different. But it's not the case, as websites like Australian Vaccination Sceptics Network illuminate. Instead, objectors refuse vaccines on the principle of choice and making 'informed choices.'
Dr. Cameron highlighted a specific case of an un-immunised twenty-one year old woman from Queensland who died from diphtheria, a disease mostly found in developing countries, as a major turning point for advocates of compulsory vaccination. "We make decisions relating to children based on what we consider to be their welfare, and if their welfare is threatened by the actions of parents, the state steps in. Unvaccinated people are a serious risk to themselves and to others- encouragement and education can be more successful. Vaccinations are not just about ourselves, but are a collective responsibility for protecting each other."
We need to realise that the power of choice is simultaneously liberating and dangerous. When a movement, like anti-vaccination, promotes the mantra of making 'informed choices', one must surely crease their brow while trying to understand their rejection of modern medicine.