Laura Williamson | Writer & Editor


OHBaby Immunisation


Why I immunised
by Laura Williamson

My son was born in 2005. Because of this, he is probably going to live to adulthood. If he does not, it won’t be due to diphtheria, whooping cough, or polio; he won’t contract measles, rubella or tetanus. Because we live when we do, and where we do, I had the chance to do something that would have seemed as miraculous as it would have been unimaginable to the mothers and fathers of the past: I immunised him.

A century ago, things would have been different. Like most children, my son probably would have caught the measles. He would have suffered a rash, fever, coughs and, perhaps, pneumonia; the measles might have caused encephalitis, which can cause brain damage and death. He might have been one of the otherwise healthy children killed by it. 

Secure in our sanitised, healthy environment, it is easy for us to forget what a threat contagious illnesses were. Smallpox was once fatal for every seventh child born in Russia. An outbreak of diphtheria in 1735 killed 80% of the children in the New England colonies. Until the 1960s, the threat of paralysis or death from polio shut down schools, cinemas and beaches. Thousands of people still live with the after-effects of contracting the illness as children.

Thankfully, things have changed. Smallpox has been completely eradicated; polio and diphtheria no longer exist in New Zealand. Other once-common illnesses, such as measles and whooping cough, are well under control.

So why immunise? For me, the answer is clear. Vaccination is the best protection I can offer my child, and it will shield him for a lifetime, wherever he goes. Polio is gone from New Zealand, but it survives in countries such as Indonesia. Visitors can still bring the disease into the country; my son might encounter it during future travels.

Still, many parents hesitate for fear of side effects. A rumoured relationship between the measles, mumps and rubella shot and autism recently caused a dip in the uptake of that vaccine.

Fair enough. It is good to ask questions when it comes to our children. I did, and this is what I found: no vaccine is 100% safe. But this is what else I found. Take the measles. Before vaccination, almost every child contracted it. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, one in 1000 would develop encephalitis, and two in 1000 would die. The rate of encephalitis or severe allergic reaction from the vaccine is one per million.

I’m lousy at maths, but I can work this one out. One in a million is better odds than two in 1000. Avoiding vaccination because it may be harmful is like not wearing a seat belt because you’re afraid the belt itself might hurt you. It could. You might get a soft tissue injury or a lumbar fracture, but that’s still a lot better than launching head first through the windshield.

But, some argue, it’s not immunisation itself that’s wrong, it’s the pressure from government. Bureaucrats are not paid to make decisions about our children’s health. It should be a personal choice.

For one, it is a personal choice. Immunisation is not mandatory in New Zealand. But, more importantly, when it comes to some issues, we as individuals just aren’t that good at doing the right thing. Look at drunk driving. Before public information campaigns, a frightening number of us got schnozzled and merrily hopped behind the wheel, despite the fact that it was an obviously stupid and dangerous thing to do. It took government intervention to change our behaviour. Now we know better, and fewer of us die.

Public misinformation can have the opposite effect. In the 1970s, the rate of whooping cough immunisation dropped in the UK from 80% to nearly 30% due to concerns about the vaccine. The result was more than 100,000 cases of the disease and 36 deaths by 1978. At the same time, the Japanese vaccination rates for the same disease dropped from 70% to less than 40%, and infection skyrocketed from 393 cases and no deaths in 1974, to 13,000 cases and 41 deaths in 1979 (CDC). Even without a calculator, this tells me that immunisation works, and when we don’t immunise, more children get sick.

A few years ago, a television advertisement ran showing a baby with whooping cough. Some parents I spoke to found it offensive; they felt the government was scaremongering. I disagree. I want to remember what whooping cough looks like.  We need to be reminded what we are protecting our children from.

It is mad, dumb luck to be raising a child now when, for the first time in human history, I can prevent certain diseases from killing him. Which is why, when I was offered Meningococcal B immunisation for my baby, I took it.  Just to be safe.


This column appeared in the Autumn 2009 issue of OHbaby!.