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Mullumbimby is one of Australia’s birthplaces of hippy culture,where embracing alternative medicines is commonplace.
But in the small NSW hinterlands town, another health trend has taken hold among some groups within the community: a distrust of corporate medical agendas that has manifested into a rejection of immunisation.
Vaccines have been heralded as one of the biggest successes of modern medicine, with the World Health Organisation saying immunisation has prevented at least 10 million deaths between 2010 and 2015 alone. But figures from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare show just 52 per cent of five-year-olds in the Mullumbimby area were fully immunised in 2015-16, compared to the national average of 92 per cent.
Penny Wheeler, who is a nurse and gives regular immunisations, grew up in Mullumbimby and said scepticism of mainstream medicine was part of her upbringing.
Speaking about her childhood, Ms Wheeler told Dateline, “If you had an illness or you had an emotional upset the next thing you know is that you’re having drops under your tongue as a kid.”
When Ms Wheeler trained to be a paramedic, and later a nurse, she was forced to confront some of her “alternative” health beliefs.
“I felt a little bit sad that I shared some of the things that I once thought were important because they're part of my heritage.”
The anti-vax vs pro-vax narrative is much more complicated than most assume, Ms Wheeler explains.
Many who are part of Mullumbimby’s counter-counter community are “vaccine hesitant” - unsure of who to believe when it comes to immunisation and whether it is safe for their children.
The World Health Organisation declared vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten threats to global health and in the first three months of this year there were nearly three times as many cases of measles reported globally - compared to the same period in 2018.
The UK, Greece, the Czech Republic and Albania have all been stripped of ‘measles-free’ status, due to dwindling rates of immunisation. And just this week, the US declared the end of the worst measles outbreak in three decades, while New Zealand’s Auckland has nearly 1,000 confirmed cases of the disease.
‘A willingness to investigate’
When mother-of-two Josie Doolan moved to the NSW Northern Rivers region she felt connected to the free-spirited counter-culture that was intrinsic to the community.
“People here are more likely to want to investigate more independent research rather than just taking the word of the government,” she said.
Ms Doolan loves her children and wants the best for their health – for her, that means vaccinations aren’t a good option. She said she has long-believed that immunisations are harmful and primarily a money-maker for corporations.
“It's too big of a risk to just sort of blindly give your new baby this needle because that's what the hospital says is a good idea.”
Ms Doolan concedes she doesn’t know everything about vaccinations. Ms Doolan was not vaccinated as a child. Neither were her six siblings. Ms Doolan claims she is in great health and that is evidence enough for her that vaccinations aren’t necessary.
The Northern Rivers local wants more independent evidence based information, which she said she has struggled to find when looking on the internet and speaking to health-care professionals.
“I wish you could get independent information where there weren’t any repercussions for the truth,” she said.
Whooping cough prevalent in the area
In Mullumbimby, whooping cough is one of the most prevalent vaccine-preventable diseases and a real concern for parents, especially for those with children too young to immunise. Resident Sarah Christian said it was tough living in Mullumbimby with a newborn.
“I would either cover him in a pram or a baby carrier and is anyone coughed I would move away so fast,” she said.
Penny Wheeler’s wife, who is also an intensive care doctor, Rachel Heap, has treated children with whooping cough – including one who did not survive the illness.
Together with her wife and a group of other locals, Dr Heap started the Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters - a group advocating for vaccinations and providing verified information about the safety of vaccines.
“There are so many people who've been misled to believe they are making the safest decision for their children,” she said.
The information provided on their website is approved by the World Health Organisation. But Dr Heap says it’s difficult countering the anti-vax narrative because the misinformation is pervasive.
“There are two groups. Those who make up [anti-vax] stuff, and those who are victims of that misinformation. My time and energy is spent on the victims.”
Dr Heap says it is a very controversial topic in the area. She knows of parents who believe it’s easier not to reveal if their children are vaccinated.
“I’d rather talk about Trump and Brexit than talk about vaccinations in this environment,” she said.
'One thousand cups of tea'
Dr Heaps says changing people’s minds about vaccination is about opening a dialogue.
Ms Wheeler avoids the popular term ‘anti-vaxer’ because it rankles with some people who are vaccine hesitant. And though Ms Wheeler is proudly pro-vaccine, she doesn’t think calling people by a name they don’t like will encourage meaningful conservation.
“You have to really listen. We call it the ‘thousand cups of tea approach’ because you’re not going to change deeply-held beliefs in one conversation,” she said.
As a nurse, Ms Wheeler regularly speaks to parents who are unsure about immunising their children. She says that dismissing those who are vaccine hesitant is not helpful and it can in-fact be more harmful.
“I've seen some children be vaccinated with an attitude of ‘well, you’d be stupid if you don't’,” she said.
“I don't think that's at all helpful. Being hesitant is not something to diminish or to denigrate. It’s an opportunity to explore and to build trust between the medical professional and the doctor.”