Vaccination is perhaps the classic case of balancing the general good against individual freedom.
Just as we limit the right to free speech by saying it is not OK to shout “Fire!” in a crowded cinema, we limit the right to refuse medical treatment by saying that all children should be immunised to protect them – and society as a whole – against life-threatening diseases.
In practice, of course, compulsory childhood vaccination isn’t really compulsory at all, as vaccination rates that hover around the 90% mark attest. Nobody is actually rounding children up and injecting them against their parents’ will.
The consequences of less than universal immunisation were tragically exposed last year when 4-week-old Dana McCaffery died of whooping cough before she was old enough to have received the vaccine.
Since they went public with calls for a campaign to boost vaccination rates, Dana’s parents claim to have been harrassed and threatened by anti-immunisation campaigners.
Dana lived on the north coast of New South Wales, an area where vaccination rates are low and locals are well known to be more easily convinced of the benefits of herbal medicines than of anything sponsored by government.
It’s no coincidence that the region is also home to one of the nation’s most vocal lobby groups on the issue.
The Australian Vaccination Network (it would probably be more accurate if AVN stood for Anti-Vaccination Network) last week refused to comply with a NSW Health Care Complaints Commission call for it to include various caveats on its website.
The HCCC found the network provided exclusively anti-vaccination information, including material that was incorrect and misleading with selective use of research to suggest the alleged dangers of vaccines.
It recommended the AVN add a prominent statement to make it clear it was anti-vaccination, that information on the site was not to be taken as medical advice and that decisions about vaccination should be made in consultation with a health professional.
Sounds reasonable? The AVN has so far refused to comply and it seems there is little authorities can do about it.
It’s hard to imagine the AVN will ever voluntarily recommend concerned parents seek medical advice.
The group believes immunisation incentives for GPs have created a “grossly unethical” situation that sees doctors rewarded for “pushing” vaccines.
“Parents no longer trust that their doctors will recommend that they vaccinate simply because it is the best thing for their child rather than the best thing for the doctor’s bottom line,” the AVN says.
Free speech is one thing but is spreading unsubstantiated fears about vaccine safety, while claiming to be supplying unbiased information, really that different from shouting “Fire!” in the crowded cinema? And should authorities have the power to do something about it?
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer. She has worked for Melbourne’s The Age and contributed to publications including the BMJ, The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is also a former news and features editor with Australian Doctor magazine. Her book, The sex factory, on the science of sex and gender will be published by UNSW Press later this year.