Needle points

It is an odd place, the mind of the anti-vaxxer: a world of righteousness and conspiracy theories, of paranoia and imagined expertise. It is an odd place, and a difficult one to understand.

The Department of Health and Ageing’s briefing document, “Myths and Realities: Responding to arguments against vaccination”, offers some insight into the mistrust and suspicion that allows a parent to risk their child to exposure to communicable diseases.

The misapprehensions are many: vaccines are unsafe; vaccines are not adequately tested; vaccines are cultured on cell lines from aborted foetuses; immunisation is unnatural; homoeopathic preparations are an alternative to conventional vaccines; diseases are virtually eliminated so vaccination is not needed.

At its most absurd, the anti-vax movement claims vaccines can cause shaken baby syndrome. This particular myth – a neat irony, if it were not so terrible – comes from the specious legal defences of people who killed their children through abuse so extreme it caused intracranial and retinal haemorrhages.

But the great lie of the anti-vax movement is that parents know better than science. It is a version of the intellectual shamanism on which climate scepticism depends. Intuition outflanks data, expertise be damned.

Cartoonist Michael Leunig muddled into anti-vaccination this week, with a poem contending that a mother’s love might be as great as any vaccine. “They have maternal instincts/ That contradict what science thinks.”

The cartoon followed a government announcement that certain welfare benefits would be linked to immunisation, with payments refused to parents who refused to vaccinate their children.

Leunig defended the cartoon through a spokeswoman, saying he supported the “maternal instinct” to reject vaccination and that he saw this as a human rights issue. “Michael feels the punitive approach by the government to people of conscientious belief regarding this matter is coercive and unjust,” she said, “and sets an appalling example to society about how those opposed might be universally regarded and treated.”

The question, however, is not about protecting parents. It is about protecting their children. Very rarely does a parent contract the communicable disease to which their unvaccinated child falls victim. Enshrining a person’s right to unfounded stupidity is one thing, but their right to inflict that stupidity on a child is another.

The facts here are simple: rates of objection to vaccination have doubled in a decade while the scientific support for vaccination has remained unchanged; outbreaks of diseases such as whooping cough have also increased, despite vaccines making these preventable.

The Abbott government’s welfare initiative is imperfect. It forgets the preponderance of high-income earners who reject vaccinations. To be truly effective, it might be coupled with a system such as that operating in New South Wales, where childcare is refused to unvaccinated children. And it must also focus on practical barriers for lower-income families and include improvements to reminder systems and catch-up services.

But it rightly has the support of the opposition and, tentatively, the Australian Medical Association. The wisdom of parents in this area is really the pseudo-science of cranks, and any attempt to correct it is welcome.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 18, 2015 as "Needle points".

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