No parent wants to watch their child get sick, especially from a disease that is preventable, for which there are trusted and widely used vaccinations available, writes Saman Shad.
By
Saman Shad

24 May 2013 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 3 Sep 2013 - 6:05 PM

No parent wants to watch their child get sick, especially from a disease that is preventable, for which there are trusted and widely used vaccinations available.

Yet it seems some parents are still willing to take that risk, believing that diseases like measles, small pox and whooping cough are not going to happen to their child. Until they do.

The facts speak for themselves. There were only 4863 cases of whooping cough (pertussis) reported in Australia in 2007, this rose to 38,500 cases in 2011.

Since 2008, eight babies have lost their lives as a result of contracting whooping cough. In 2011 and 2012 there was a measles outbreak in Australia, with more than 400 cases reported.

It seems for some reason a number of Australians have decided that immunisation is not as important as the authorities would like them to believe. The question remains why?

I was born in a country where preventable diseases run rife. Where poverty is extreme and it isn't uncommon for parents to watch their children die before their very eyes.

The country is Pakistan. A place where 61 out of 1,000 children under the age of one die every year. Many in the country know firsthand what it is like to watch someone they love die of a disease that is preventable.

They have watched helplessly as the illness takes grip of the weakest in their family, usually a child, and squeezes the life out of them. It is painful, it is slow and it is something they never forget.

It is why they travel hundreds of kilometres and even risk their lives in order to get vaccinations, which can be a matter of life or death.

The poverty and conditions of Pakistan are very far removed from the realities of your every day Australian.

If you've lived in this country your whole life and not travelled to some of the poorer parts of the world, you might believe that such poverty exists only on your screens – in the world of TV or the Internet.

When I've mentioned the details of what life is like in Pakistan to a few Australians who have chosen not to get their children vaccinated, they automatically blame the sanitation and hygiene of third world countries as a reason for the prominence of diseases over there.

While there is truth to that logic, Dettol and closed gutters aren't the only answers to combating the spread of preventable diseases.

The WHO recommends vaccination rates of 93% to ensure herd immunity – that is a form of immunity where a significant majority of the population is vaccinated in order to protect those who for some reason can't be immunised.

Yet in parts of Australia vaccination rates have dwindled to below 85%. Some of these places include the richest suburbs in all of Australia, such as Mosman and Vaucluse in Sydney.

It seems for many of those living in these areas there is a strong belief that disease and illness can never happen to them or their children. This along with an increased trust in “natural medicine” has lead them to mistrust science.

The dark shadow of a widely discredited link between the MMR vaccine and autism also still hangs in the minds of those unwilling to vaccinate their children.

This is mainly due to the persistence of the 'Australian Vaccination Network' (AVN) – a vehemently anti-vaccination group that has managed to persuade a number of parents who trust “Dr Google” more than their own GP (when Googling for “vaccinations” for example, the AVN is one of the first links to appear in the results).

There are also those who simply blame their busy lives for not getting their children vaccinated.

To counter the arguments of such busy parents the Australian government has released an app that allows you to keep track of when your child needs to be immunised.

This along with a “maternity immunisation allowance” are pretty much the extent of the solutions the government has come up with. But perhaps another approach is needed.

Apps and payments have so far not been effective in persuading those who have made up their minds to not immunise, so perhaps we need to bring emotion into the equation.

It took an emotional response to persuade people to stop smoking – all the warnings about cancer and death were easily ignored, but the pictures of disfigured limbs on cigarette boxes and ads about fathers on their death beds being visited by their children were much harder to avoid.

Would then the pictures of a child suffering from diphtheria, his body so bloated it looks like he's going to explode, or the sounds of a baby taking his last painful hacking coughs as a result of contracting pertussis, or the images of a child with measles, every inch of her body covered in agonising itchy, red welts persuade people to vaccinate? I'd imagine it's more likely to.

No parent wants to see their child suffer, and we would all rather ignore the worst aspects of what can happen, to both us and our children.

But if that gets in the way of matters of life and death, it's time we got tough and forced those who'd rather bury their heads in the sand, to come up for air and look around at the reality of the decision they've made.

Saman Shad is a Sydney-based freelance writer. Twitter: @muminprogress

Jabbed: Love, fear and vaccines airs Sunday May 26 at 8:30pm on SBS ONE