DISCUSSION on the era of the anti-vaccinationists was raised at a recent law and medicine conference by world renowned Australian virologist Professor Ian Gust.
Australia has a small but vocal anti-vaccination movement, which is active on the internet. Last year the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission took action against one anti-vaccination group after a complaint from a family whose young child had died from whooping cough.
Australia maintains generally high levels of childhood immunisation, but there are pockets of ideological opposition, especially among people who believe that their children have been harmed by immunisation.
While we know that not all vaccines are 100% effective and they can, rarely, cause serious complications, the majority of this alleged vaccine-related harm is not supported by medical evidence.
Why, then, is there such vocal opposition to one of the most successful public health measures of modern times? Why are developing countries crying out for vaccination, while a group of middle-class people in developed economies reject it?
There are several influences at play, including the fact that modern medicine is a victim of its own success.
Not many people who can recall the days of children in callipers from polio, or infant graves in cemeteries, are opposed to vaccination. It is a luxury of a safe and wealthy society.
In the same way that our community no longer tolerates child death, it doesn’t tolerate any adverse events from preventive therapy.
Then there is the influence of the mass media, which emphasises events and opinions that sell news, not messages that promote health.
However, the biggest question is this: what has led a small but vocal section of our community to be so suspicious of the motives of medical practitioners?
We have better health outcomes and longevity than ever before. We train doctors in communication skills and emphasise the need to provide good information to patients.
To add insult to injury, some homeopaths sell the pseudoscience of “homeopathic immunisation”. Using the concepts of immunity and immunisation from orthodox medicine, they then use totally discordant principles in treatment.
With people moving in droves to seek the help of “alternative” health practitioners, the question of why a growing proportion of our population are more convinced by practitioners who don’t offer scientific evidence needs to be addressed. Is there something about the communication style of these “alternative” practitioners that orthodox practitioners can learn from? Or is it just human nature to want simple solutions?
If immunisation and its protection of the “herd” were not so important, perhaps we could just ignore the anti-vaccinationists. What we need to know is why so many people are turning to pseudoscience despite the fact that the body of evidence-based medicine continues to grow.
Dr Sue Ieraci is a specialist emergency physician with 25 years’ experience in the public hospital system. Her particular interests include policy development and health system design, and she has held roles in medical regulation and management. She also runs the health system consultancy SI-napse.
Posted 15 August 2011
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