For the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to think of a book title that would set out at least an honest view of the fact that as of last week two-thirds of us in this country have not been vaccinated against polio. Polio was eradicated thanks to vaccination in the 1950s. I’m serious, it’s the miracle drug that saved the world from a deadly disease that didn’t exist five or 10 years ago.
It’s an explosive issue, though. Flu season is kicking off, with flu itself a very dangerous disease. Even the greenest of greens can see the obvious benefit in vaccinating people against flu – it’s literally a good thing to do. So vaccine sceptics – people who have decided there’s something wrong with modern medicine, or certain diseases, or perhaps in this case vaccinating children against a deadly disease in some circumstances – argue that you either do it against their will or you do it against the will of most sensible people. I’ve been intrigued by this argument, but in truth I’ve also always doubted whether many of the sceptics are rational enough for it to be an issue.
Last week I interviewed Dr Peter Himmelman, head of paediatrics at Great Ormond Street Hospital, who believes that certain types of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, or not vaccinate them at all, represent nothing less than “erosion of values” in the West and a “fundamental threat to good public health”. There are now two British children in a medically induced coma, believed to have had polio, because their mothers, having been convinced that vaccines cause autism, failed to get them the jab. That’s an extreme example, and a symptom of what Himmelman said in my interview: that the fact that the highest proportion of parents who refuse to vaccinate their children are in middle-class households, with children around the age of three and four, might be the result of a disconnect between those families and mainstream medicine.
The public is no longer necessarily too sleepy to think about it. Last week NHS England’s Dr Clare Gerada said that one of the chief failures of British medical practice over the past 70 years was not bothering with compassion and understanding the concerns of patients. If I ever happen to meet one of the ant-vaxers, I will ask them why. Why haven’t you done something to find out what vaccine you are preventing? That’s the coward’s way out, they might say – they know how to get a vaccine but aren’t bothered about it. What they are saying is that the infant lives depend on their agency: go into a womb, help in the labour ward.
The alternative to the yin-yang relationship, I suspect, is that most of the people who don’t vaccinate their children are anxious. The bile directed at them is symptomatic. There are lots of happy, rational parents out there who have children healthy because they’ve vaccinated them. Others are anxious enough not to vaccinate because of anecdotal evidence that vaccines do in fact cause autism.
Peter Himmelman is right when he says that a lack of empathy could be the first step in allowing a conspiracy to be perpetuated. There is no science behind the idea that vaccination causes autism, nor any authority, even if it existed, to justify. Not immunising one’s children is also the first step in allowing some of those people who don’t vaccinate to feel OK about it.
You’d think, though, that empathy might be one of the first benefits of vaccination for anyone. But that won’t be enough if the myth that the virus was real lives on.