Parents and governments across the globe are taking controversial stances on childhood immunisation in the wake of rises in preventable diseases.
Late afternoon sunlight angles through cheerily draped kitchen windows, illuminating her pained and tired face. A steaming coffee sits by her left hand, completely forgotten. Dust motes rise lazily in the air before winking out of sight. Amy Ryans, a 29-year-old Sydney mother, is aware of none of this. She is worn out after another long day at the hospital sitting by the bedside of her one-year-old infant, Eva. Eva is dying.
Baby Eva was diagnosed with leukemia one month ago, shortly after her routine measles, mumps and rubella vaccination. Without a bone marrow transplant she will not recover; even with the transplant, her chances of survival are evenly split.
Amy takes a seat at the kitchen table, a slim woman with dark brown eyes shining from tears that are yet to fall. Her clothes are crumpled; her hair hasn’t seen a brush in days. She smiles wearily, breaking the waves of silence in a stilted voice.
“There’s no evidence that her vaccination caused the leukemia, and the doctors didn’t suggest it, but it’s something I can’t stop worrying about.
“I can’t find scientific evidence that absolutely disproves there could be a link between the two, and now, after all she’s going through, my stance on vaccination has changed… It’s always different when it happens to you.”
Her voice trails off; she takes a sip of the now-cooling coffee, her actions heavy, those of a sleepwalker. Amy Ryans is a mother who suffers from wondering whether her care was criminal – and she’s not alone.
In April 2010, 5-year-old Saba Button from Perth was diagnosed with organ and brain damage after receiving the flu vaccination Fluvax. She is now a quadriplegic and completely blind, requiring around-the-clock medical care. Mere days after she fell ill, the State and Federal governments stopped the seasonal flu vaccination as hundreds of other children presented at hospitals with adverse reactions.
On June 6 of this year, the case bought against giant pharmaceutical company CSL Ltd by Saba’s mother on her behalf was finally closed in court as “Big Pharma” decided to settle with the Button family – and thus ended one of Australia’s biggest medical compensation law suits, and one of the most chilling cases of vaccination gone wrong.
Yet there is no denying that preventable diseases are on the rise due to fervent anti-vaccination movements, and the detrimental impacts of this are felt across entire communities and countries.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States released a statement on May 30 of this year claiming the number of measles cases has risen to 288, the highest number since the disease was eliminated in the country in 2000.
On March 27 of this year, Croatia adopted a nationwide inoculation policy; this decision came in response to a growing anti-vaccine debate in the country that saw a rise in the number of parents refusing to vaccinate their children, and consequentially, a rise in the number of diseased and deceased children.
The court stated, “The child’s right to health is more than the rights of parents to the (wrong) choice” in its ruling.
Even at home in Australia, a nation of high immunisation levels, there are areas in which the rates of vaccination have dropped. As recently as June 13, the NSW Health Department issued a statement describing a new series of free measles, mumps and rubella vaccines targeted at high-school children who missed the vaccines in their infancy, in response to a growing rise of adult measles in Australia.
In Sydney, it is the educated, wealthy parents of Eastern Sydney who are least likely to vaccinate their children, with the number of non-vaccinated children in the area growing over the last year.
Is this, then, a form of criminal neglect? It has been proven that unvaccinated children are not only at more of a risk to dangerous diseases themselves, but are also more at risk of disseminating disease throughout the community.
Madeleine Sparks, a 27-year-old childcare worker in the Before and After School Care (BASC) program at St Charles Catholic School in Gladesville, NSW, has clarified her stance on vaccination after witnessing how easily epidemics can spread through the small childcare facility.
“As it stands, you have to provide your child’s immunisation status when you enrol in childcare – either records of immunisation, or that you consciously object to it.
“A non-vaccinated child can be excluded from childcare.
“Personally, I think parents who don’t vaccinate are putting their kids unnecessarily at risk, and putting other kids at risk along with them. So, I want to say vaccination should be mandatory… But I know that’s taking away some sort of civil liberty even though it’s, in my opinion, in the best interests of the child.”
She pauses thoughtfully, saying perhaps she’d need to “research the statistics” more thoroughly before making a decision on the subject: yet upon leaving, she casually mentions there is “no way” she wouldn’t vaccinate her own children.
The tragic tales of Eva and Saba are, perhaps, just that to most: tragic tales, as opposed to cautionary ones.
Ranira Moodley, a 25-year-old pharmacist, found that parents who came to her pharmacy for vaccination scripts were “already willing” to get the vaccines as they’d been to their doctor who had set their concerns aside.
She believes that is what it all comes down to – those in the health industry needing to “just push harder and try to convince the doubtful”.
“Interestingly enough, you’d think better education and awareness about vaccines would help but if you have a look at the literature it’s the more highly educated parents that are choosing not to vaccinate their kids.
“I think we need to dispel the myths around vaccination. The University of Sydney published a systematic review last month (19June) proving once and for all there is no link between autism and vaccines.
“I think the concomitant rise in autism and other diseases after vaccines is due to technological advances in general, but also to medical diagnostic tests. We see more of many diseases, particularly cancer and autism, because we can properly test for them.”
This knowledge may be small comfort for Amy Ryans, a heartbroken mother who faces the 6 am alarm with dread, knowing that with each day her baby slips a little further away. We realise vaccination is for the greater good of the community: but how do we ever sleep soundly again if our child is the one to become a statistic? An unfortunate casualty in what is, by and large, a protective operation?
To vaccinate or not to vaccinate is truly a terrifying decision that is made all over the world every day, often as lightly as the decision to go for a walk or make a cup of tea.