Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The ignorant courage of the anti-vaxxers



When Lena told me she wouldn’t be vaccinating her newborn son Sammy (names changed), I admit I was fascinated.

But I can’t say I was surprised. Sammy was my friend’s first child, and Lena – who became a yoga teacher after confronting and fixing her own health issues – was always going to do motherhood her way.

Lena made the decision after consulting with several alternative health professionals she admired and she knew it wasn’t going to be easy (Sammy might not be allowed to go to childcare, Lena couldn’t take him to see newborn babies etc.), but she was adamant that it was the right decision for her and Sammy.

That was about 15 years ago. I’m now older, hopefully wiser and (most importantly) a mother of a five- and eight-year-old, and let’s just say that my thoughts on and around the issue of immunisation are far less elementary.

Of course, there are good reasons why I find myself returning to Lena and Sammy. As will be announced in next month’s budget, parents who refuse to vaccinate their children will lose welfare payments of between $2100 and $15,000 per child (exceptions on medical grounds only). It’s part of the federal government’s tough ‘No Jab, No Play’ policy that’s designed to save it more than $50 million a year.

There will also be a $26 million package aimed at boosting vaccination rates among the community. The latest statistics show that 166,000 children were more than two months overdue for their vaccinations last year; almost 40,000 were ‘conscientious objectors’.

Yes, you’d be hard pressed to find a hotter hot-potato topic right now. And there are many out there, such as Lena and Canadian mother-of-seven Tara Hills (and whose story I’ll return to later), who came to their decision with a clear vision and a level-head.

But, while I understand their position, I can no longer accept or ignore it. Since having my precious boys, my world view has shifted and, with it, I guess, my ignorance.

The truth is I’ve read too many stories of loss. I’ve put myself in the shoes of parents who have had to bury their newborns due to an outbreak that should never have happened here in Australia. Each new story enters and disturbs the psyche in its own inimitable way. And each has helped me see the light.

Even in the aftermath of grief some parents find it in themselves to push for social change. Such is the story of Toni and David McCaffery, who lost their newborn Dana to whooping cough, known medically as pertussis, in 2009.

In an online open letter in 2013, the McCafferys wrote of 'wrongly assuming' their family was protected ‘because [they] were all vaccinated at birth'. What they didn’t know was that where they lived, in NSW’s Northern Rivers region, had ‘one of the nation’s lowest childhood vaccination rates’ in Australia, which rendered them no longer immune.

Dana contracted pertussis in the first weeks of her life. No-one else in our family has tested positive for pertussis or had a cough. We have tortured ourselves with questions...

Someone who thought she had all the answers was Tara Hills. Once a card-carrying anti-vaccinator, Hills had her beliefs shattered when a measles outbreak hit nearby. 'I looked again at the science and evidence for community immunity and found myself gripped with a very real sense of personal and social responsibility before God and man,' the Canadian mother bravely wrote in the blog TheScientificParent.org.

'The time had come to make a more fully informed decision than we did six years ago. I sat down with our family doctor and we put together a catch-up vaccination schedule for our children.'

While the family escaped measles, earlier this month each of Hill’s seven children caught pertussis. The children recovered (thanks to a course of antibiotics and a stint of isolation) and Hills has since done a complete about-turn.

'I set out to prove that we were right,' Hills told the Washington Post, 'and in the process found out how wrong we were.'

I have no way of knowing how Lena and Sammy are doing now. Our friendship crumbled sometime after I had my second child. Such is the polarising nature of the immunisation debate.

I can’t help thinking that both Lena and I are somehow diminished by allowing this distance to grow between us. It seems driven by fear and nothing good can come of that. One day I hope to make tentative steps towards healing our friendship. Over a peppermint tea, I’d like to think there might again come the meeting of hearts, if not ideologies.

Whether or not we could ever be good friends again is uncertain, but reconnecting, like change, takes courage. And if I remember correctly, courage was one thing Lena had in spades.

Jen VukJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor.

Vaccine image by Shutterstock.

Topic tags: Jen Vuk, vaccination, health, alternative medicine, federal budget, parenting, family



submit a comment

Existing comments

I attended a meeting this morning at our local nursing home. Those attending the meeting were asked "Have you had your flu shot yet?" To which a number of us (including myself) replied, "We're waiting for our doctor to receive more vaccine". Immunisation is very important even if the jab hurts a bit. Maybe Jen and Lena can revive their friendship but I'd suggest that talking about anything but an immunisation jab may be the way to go!

Pam | 24 April 2015  

Jen thank you for a gentle article on this topic. Most of what has been written in newspapers in the past several weeks has been worryingly vociferous. As one who, as an adult with no responsibility for small children, acts on my own behalf from a sense of caution with regard to the pharmaceutical industry, I find the viciousness of some comments quite frightening. I gather that there are some who would like to throw people like me into prison. I suppose centuries ago we might have been burnt at the stake. So, it is good to read your measured comments. I do not think the government's punitive approach to parents, mostly poorer parents, has been helpful in this campaign to have children immunised. It has placed a wedge (yet a further wedge) between rich and poor in our community and given those who love to hate yet another group on which to vent their spleen. Carrots are always a wiser way to go than sticks.

Janet | 27 April 2015  

"Alternative medicine" may be an alternative to medicine, but it is not medicine. Better to call it what it is: charlatanism, quackery, witchcraft, voodoo, black magic, . . .

Richard Olive | 27 April 2015  

Having a one track mind, I can't help thinking about the Ignorant Courage of those religiously minded people who cling blindly to the religious traditions they have bonded to, even when those traditions lead them away from the generally accepted beliefs that God is Love, and Compassionate, the Caring Father of all Mankind, and who desires not the death even of sinners, but that they all have Life, and have it more abundantly. God commanded, "Let there be Light", but many religious leaders want to put blinkers on their followers to pressure them to follow their man-made traditions, even when they distort or obscure God's Light.

Robert Liddy | 27 April 2015  

Everyone loves the smell of their own farts. Foolish people love their own opinions, ignore authoritative views and data, and can't handle discussion. A little knowledge is certainly dangerous.

James Grover | 27 April 2015  

I'm a little saddened to see this as the ES contribution to the vaccination debate. !5 years ago "anti vaxxers" ( I very much deplore the term!) had reason to decide against vaccination given the now totally discredited work of Andrew Wakefield. Today their reasons are likely to be more complex. However the real issues I would have hoped ES might take up revolve round parents' right to make decisions in conscience for the welfare of their children (even if others may regard their reasons as lacking validity); and on whether the government ever has the right to treat welfare payments as conditional on good behaviour. As regards vaccination all the evidence suggests that diminished immunity in adults vaccinated many years ago is at least as much an issue as unvaccinated children.Also since some vaccinations have success rates way below 100% there is a real issue with children sent to school unwell whose parents naively believe the rash could not be measles and the cough could not be pertussis. Yet again the Abbott government has courted approval and sought to make savings by a simple solution to a complex problem.

Margaret | 27 April 2015  

The topic of vaccination certainly brings high emotion to the conversation. I think it is dangerous that if someone questions the safety or effectiveness of any vaccine, they are shut down. All vaccines are not created equally and some are more effective than others. Some have more adverse reactions than others as well. I am not anti vaccine, however I am concerned about adverse reactions and misinformation from drug companies who are making billions. I vaccinated my children fully until two had a severe adverse reactions. I was told to stop vaccinating by a pro- vaccine paediatrician. He said there are about 10% of children who had adverse reactions and some of them shouldn't continue with the program. There are some vaccines I would still take as an adult and others I would not. There are now 44 vaccines given to a child by the time they are 7. Are we not allowed to question any of this? Most children who are not vaccinated is probably due to neglect, which is another topic altogether. You say it may be fear that drives conscientious objectors, well it is also fear that the government and drug companies use in promotion of vaccines, it's a powerful weapon. Yes some of this fear is reasonable, on both sides of the argument. I thought we lived in a free country. In the U.S. there is a court just for compensation for vaccine injured children, which has paid out hundreds of millions in compensation. Being successful in this court is extremely difficult, they don't give money away for nothing. You pointed out that babies have died from whooping cough and that is tragic. As is the death of children from the flu shot a few years ago and the permanent disabilities which have been caused by vaccines. We should not just rely on vaccination for good health. We need to remember the basics, good hygiene, eating healthy foods, breast feeding and isolating very young babies from the crowds. I will no doubt be attacked for daring to not agree with all that vaccination is, but my hope is that we can make safer vaccines and give people more options for single vaccines in the future.

Kate | 27 April 2015  

I do remember growing up in a mountain village in Europe. I do remember how many children were confined to their homes or severely restricted because of Polio. I can recall hearing about funerals of children having died from Whooping Cough. The fear of dying or being crippled from one of the many childhood diseases was real. Later on my grand parents were able to pay for my Polio vaccination as it was too expensive for my parents. There was no free vaccination available and the cost of vaccination for many families was great. In time vaccinations became cheaper and more affordable and even free. Within a few years the fear from dying of polio and other childhood diseases was gone across most of Europe. Later on vaccinations were still required if you wanted to travel. You needed in immunisation against several diseases such as Yellow Fever and Smallpox. When I was working in remote areas of the South Pacific, I came across shocking reminders how far diseases still had an impact on everyone anywhere. I did see the impact of Leprosy, Malaria, Whooping Cough etc. Almost every month there was someone dying in a village from an disease or infection which would have been preventable if vaccination or medication would have been available. Disease and death were the terror and the war on terror was fought by brave volunteers and missionary sisters traveling into remote villages trying to help. Considering all the knowledge we have today about infectious diseases, it is incomprehensible that anybody would deny their own children vaccination. Denying vaccination to their own children is one of the worst cases of child abuse and could be regarded as conspiracy to mass murder.

Beat Odermatt | 27 April 2015  

Yes Pam. You hit the nail on the head. I'm not sure if we can ever get over that divide. Lucky for us, if I recall correctly, "Lena" and I used to share many interests...

Jen V | 27 April 2015  

Something I've noticed about ' anti-vaxxers ' is that they are very often angry about a whole raft of unsatisfactoriness that they lay at the door of 'Western ' medicine. They are often also hugely ill educated in scientific matters generally. I do wonder if anger & ignorance are good foundations on which to rest the health of one's children. Any ideas?

David Hicks | 27 April 2015  

Thanks for a very insightful article. It is indeed interesting and frustrating to see how otherwise well educated and apparently reasonable people become "science-deniers". This applies to those who have quaint convictions about the utility of unproved and indeed fanciful alternative/complementary medicine and yet neurotically reject fully validated treatments; but also those who reject fracking, nuclear energy, modern forestry practices, freezer-trawlers and indeed climate change. it is all of a one-ness. Prejudice and a false sense of self-interest against proven science and the common good. Heard of the Green Party? ... they especially represent most of this in the public space, with the odd exception of the Liberals making climate denial their very own. Labour of course choses whatever issue it thinks will make it popular with no regard to principle .

Eugene | 27 April 2015  

This article is long on emotion and short on facts. A counter view might point to how vaccines can and do kill babies and children, e.g Saba Button who was one of many children around Australia who were damaged or died from the recommended flu vaccine. The only rage I hear of these days in the mainstream media is of children such as Riley who died at 4 weeks of a “vaccine preventable death”. Yet there are outbreaks of pertussis with children that are fully vaccinated. Where’s the outrage that the recently vaccinated are putting vulnerable newborns and medically vulnerable persons at risk or that the recently vaxed can spark outbreaks through shedding of the viruses as shown in this article . http://www.cnbc.com/id/102473744.

Brenda Cook | 27 April 2015  

I notice that those sympathetic to the anti-vaxxers here adopt one of their standard tactics, playing the victim, along the lines of "They are conscientious, loving parents who are being persecuted for their sincere beliefs by the cruel and heartless majority (and the pharmaceutical industry)". This is contemptible hogwash. Parents who refuse to vaccinate their children against serious diseases are foolish and irresponsible. They are not only exposing their own offspring to disease, but also other members of the community. My son got a nasty case of chickenpox when a baby (he was too young to be vaccinated). He probably got that from one of those "conscientious, loving parents". As a parent, you do not have the right to harm your child, or mine. What if I said I had a religious objection to wearing seatbelts? What if I told my kids that sunscreen causes skin cancer, or that smoking cigarettes never hurt anyone? Am I entitled to do that, just because they're my kids?

Monty Rosenthal | 27 April 2015  

A counter view might point to how vaccines can and do kill babies and children, e.g Saba Button who was one of many children around Australia who were damaged or died from the recommended flu vaccine. The only rage I hear of these days in the mainstream media is of children such as Riley who died at 4 weeks of a “vaccine preventable death”. Yet there are outbreaks of pertussis with children that are fully vaccinated. Where’s the outrage that the recently vaccinated are putting vulnerable newborns and medically vulnerable persons at risk or that the recently vaxed can spark outbreaks through shedding of the viruses

Brenda Cook | 27 April 2015  

Richard Olive's comment is a very good example of the unnecessarily aggressive discussion I was complaining of in my first post.

Janet | 28 April 2015  

in 1975 my 21 year old sister in law died from Goodpasture's syndrome as a result of having a smallpox vaccination. It was a terrible tragedy but a very rare thing and the vaccine has saved countless lives. When the time came it never even crossed our minds to abstain from having our children vaccinated and thankfully they have taken the same sensible option with their children. It really is a no brainer.

Matt Casey | 28 April 2015  

There will, by definition, never be any evidence to support alternative medicine. As soon as any such evidence exists, the formerly "alternative" practice is adopted by the medical orthodoxy, and then ceases to be "alternative", thereby becoming less acceptable to alternative medicine devotees. Thus, it is the acceptance of a treatment by the medical profession that makes it unacceptable to the alternative medicine community, rather than any consideration of the treatment per se - a pretty bizarre way to assess remedies. I wonder if the anti-vaxxers who do their own "research" to make an individual decision on vaccinations subject their alternative herbal and homeopathic remedies to the same level of scrutiny. The trouble with Janet acting "on her own behalf" is that she doesn't live on her own, but in a community. There will always be those who, for medical reasons, cannot be fully vaccinated, or babies who have not yet completed their schedule. They are relying on the immunity of the herd, which the anti-vaxxers are compromising.

David Olive | 28 April 2015  

OK, so it's a fact that the pharmaceutical companies have a huge vested interest in vaccines, but would those people also reject diabetes treatments, HIV drugs, chemotherapy, anti-depressants, just because it's a huge money-spinner? I see this as a total non-issue. Just tell us what the percentage risk of harm is, (very small I imagine), and let's get on with it. Are parents in places like Sierra Leon and Bangladesh going through this debate?

AURELIUS | 29 April 2015  

One thing I wonder about !!! If vaccines are such a good thing why are we having to spend billions of dollars to convince people about it ????. Ignorance you say :). Yet I don't find billions of dollars being spent to promote the healthiness of organic food. Quite contrary, billions are being spent to make people believe mcDonalds and the rest are going healthy and you can come back. Ignorance you say!!! There is no logic and common sense. All we can do is accept that Doctors are Gods and we must trust them. I don't have kids, I was born in an African country and only did 1 sort of vaccine in my life and yet never had any of these diseases western people seem to fear. Heck, westerners are soon going to be scared of their own shadow at this pace. I also find it interesting how Pro vaccers always insult anti vaccers. Makes no sense. The anti vaccers are always quiet and minding their business while the pro vaccers are always making so much noise and abusing their counter part as being inferior. Remember remember, there is no greater fool than the one who thinks he is wise enough and knows enough.

Babylonian | 30 April 2015  

I, of all people have reason to be anti vaccination. Our daughter is profoundly deaf in one ear. The ENT specialist blamed the Measles - Mumps vaccine. However, I support vaccination fully. Why? Vaccines are not perfect and these things do happen. The point is that the chances of our daughter catching the disease and having the same thing or worse happen are very much greater if she was not vaccinated. Further, if the number of non - vaccinated persons in the community goes above a certain small level a pool of the responsible organisms can form making infection much more likely for everyone, so we have a social responsibility to keep up vaccination. Despite individual cases, vaccination has resulted in a huge reduction in misery caused by these diseases. People of my generation mostly had measles, and mumps, some with very serious complications, that today's kids are mostly free of. The Rotary Polio Plus vaccination system has freed millions of people from the threat of permanent incapacity or death from that disease. One has only to travel to South Asia and see the Polio crippled beggars on the streets to see where we might be without polio vaccination.

John S. | 01 May 2015  

The only silver lining in this cloud is that at least no child is being forcibly medicated under a vaccination program. Parents still have the choice whether to vaccinate or not. Remember a few years back when some parents in the US were being forced, under threat of a child abuse charge, to put their hyperactive children on Ritalin? Don't know where that all went, but so far government is allowing us to use our own brains. Once the herd immunity is seriously threatened, it will be a different matter - but we're not there yet. Janet,I'm pro vaccination - but otherwise - I sincerely agree with your rational and nuanced post.

Joan Seymour | 02 May 2015  

In May 2010, aged 74 I had a flu and pneumonia vaccination at 4-30pm., My family and I had had vaccinations all our life with no reactions. 12 hours after this latest vaccination I awoke delirious, with a raging temperature, profuse sweating and unable to walk or eat, After a week in bed and no appetite I lost 5kg After a further 6 weeks sick with fever and a worsening cough and a further loss of 4 kg I saw a doctor 160km away who said I had pneumonia (first time ever) Our local country doctors were inaccessible during this 6 weeks. During this time all I felt like doing was listening to the news It was reporting that children in Perth and Brisbane were presenting at Emergency hospitals with severe vaccination reactions. Several children were subsequently reported by the Fairfax media as having been brain damaged for life. The Australian Therapeutic Goods Authority answered questions with a "no worries" brushoff. US FDA ignored the TGA assurances and sent a 5 person team of FDA investigators to Australia following widespread adverse vaccination reactions in USA. They responded to what they found in a close inspection of the Australian CSL laboratories by threatening to stop purchasing $120 million of their products, unless they reached a USFDA standard for their factory and products.
If the odd child or adult is killed or brain damaged for life by such faulty vaccines, will they be compensated for this outcome by CSL, the government or the mindless mob calling for penalties for those who decline vaccinations on the grounds of witnessed experience.
David H

David Houston | 04 May 2015  

Similar Articles

An ignoble boycott calculated to hurt Russia

  • Tony Kevin
  • 07 May 2015

On Saturday, a Victory Parade will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the final defeat of Fascist Germany. It is a fitting tribute to the heroism of the Russian people for their huge sacrifices and sufferings in a common cause with the west. Many leaders including US President George W. Bush attended the 60th, but a specious rationale is dictating a boycott this time around.


Increasing retirement age will cost the budget

  • Michele Gierck
  • 06 May 2015

Treasurer Joe Hockey is keen for us to work as long as possible. The government’s aim is to keep the hands of ageing workers and would be retirees out of its pension pot. There are many benefits associated with maintaining older people in the workforce, but it can be expensive to take, for example, the reality of dementia into account when designing jobs and workplaces.