Vaccination benefits outweigh risk

Dr Sue Page is a GP and medical educator.

The Woodford Folk Festival is a fabulous week- long event attended by 20,000 people a day. Renown internationally for its live music, it began as a market and has kept an eclectic mix of arts, crafts, dance and theatre with the ability to undertake courses and listen to speakers. Like many such events, it has an alternative lifestyle flavour complete with a homeopathic first aid tent (in addition to ambulance and medical services).

So why were some people, including myself, so disturbed that Meryl Dorey was planning to talk about vaccination that they were willing to donate personal time and money opposing her?

Meryl, as president of Australia's largest anti-vaccination organisation, describes herself as "Australia's leading expert in vaccination" and says she is not against vaccination yet says things like: "There will come a time - I pray to God that it will happen in my lifetime - when those who have pushed vaccines upon innocent, helpless babies - doctors, pharmaceutical companies, government officials - will be proven to have lied and cheated these instruments of death into our children's bloodstream."

A common theme to anti-vaccination messages is that diseases are not dangerous, yet 1.7 million children under the age of five still died from vaccine-preventable diseases in 2008, including local Aussie kids¹. In one publication, measles is even described as "marvellous". Measles!

One in 70 people with measles will be so sick they are hospitalised, one in 20 have a pneumonia that can't be treated with antibiotics and which often causes lung scarring. One in 1000 have a brain infection, and one in 100,000 have an infection that continues damaging their brain until they are progressively disabled and die².

Imagine for a moment that the Woodford audience was not vaccinated and that one of the entry gate keepers was in the infective phase of measles (before the rash is evident). Measles is highly contagious and transmitted by droplets including coughing, sneezing and kissing. Up to 20,000 people could now be exposed. By the end of the festival these new people start being contagious and attend the massive NYE event. Following this, they travel home to families across Australia and around the world. Easy to see how disease spreads.

Imagine for a moment that the 130,000 people who attended Woodford in 2007 were all exposed. Nearly 2000 would be hospitalised and 6500 would develop pneumonia. 130 would risk permanent brain damage. Overall 390 people would die.

Globally, there were 164,000 measles deaths in 2008 - nearly 450 deaths every day or 18 deaths every hour. Compare that to the mass vaccination program in Australia in 1998 where 1.7 million children were vaccinated and within five years we had more than a 95% reduction in cases of measles. Incidentally, there were only 89 adverse reactions, of which a third were feeling faint and none of which were long term.

Let me say that as a GP of over 20 years on the North Coast I have no problem with people who disagree with mainstream medicine. I do however have a really big problem when Australian Vaccination Network accepts $280,000 a year in donations and membership fees selling fear and a harmful product of misinformation. Freedom of speech is not free if the true cost is the lives of our families.

Meryl would have you disbelieve me. She says that to trust our doctors is "like telling a hen to trust a fox or like telling a five-year-old to trust a paedophile" and has described a court-ordered vaccination as "Court orders rape of child… This is assault without consent and with full penetration too". Comments like these show an appalling lack of sensitivity.

The evidence in support of vaccination is really clear and is also available in a variety of reader-friendly sites³.

Meryl's talk at Woodford was entitled "Autism Emergency: one child in 38". She would have you believe that the MMR vaccination is an instrument of disability as well as an "instrument of death". Yet a recent exhaustive review of 12,000 peer-reviewed articles found no such link. And then think of your own GP who has looked after your family for years, or the doctor you saw in the hospital. To trust them is akin to promoting child abuse? Seriously?

I do not assert that vaccines are 100% safe or 100% effective, but I do assert that the benefits of vaccination gob-smackingly outweigh the risks. The small plane flying over the 2012 Festival, which was paid for by donations from individuals, not corporates, said it simply: "Vaccination saves lives."

Australia has legislation forbidding the sale of unproven products for the treatment of cancer. In my opinion this should be extended to unproven vaccination remedies.

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