In 2004 I travelled to Madagascar as part of a group researching lemurs.
Each morning, we would leave our basic camp (no power, no running water) and hike through the hills to the rainforest. When we got there local Malagasy trackers, who’d been up before dawn, would meet us and direct us to the troop of lemurs and we’d spend our day studying their behaviour.
We were about a week into our visit when a woman carrying a tiny infant came tearing out of the scrub. She had wild eyes. Her baby was clearly very sick. He had a limp little body and a very worrying cough. His mother pleaded with us in Malagasy and our guide translated “did we have any medicine?”
I had packed a first aid kit filled with drugs and clean needles in case I fell ill during the trip, but I didn’t have any medicines suitable for children though.
I felt helpless. Then I did what any self-righteous Western tourist does in these situations. I threw money at the problem. The camp cook would be heading into the nearest town the following day. I asked our guide (a PhD student studying Zoology) to have the mother describe her child’s illness to him. Then I asked him to take the day off his study and travel with the camp cook to Fianarantsoa, visit the chemist and get the baby some drugs. In hindsight it was terribly selfish to ask him to give up a precious day in the field to attend my errand.
That night in my tent I started to panic. I had no idea what medicines cost in this remote part of the seventh poorest country on earth. I only had US$150 in camp with me. What if the drug cost more than that? I asked some new (and now very good) mates if they’d be able to spot me the cash if I needed it. In the end, I didn’t need their help. I forget the exact amount, but the total bill came to less than US$5.
Miraculously that little baby’s cough got better. We saw him a couple of times before we left the study site and he improved markedly before our eyes.
Years later, I became a mother myself and I finally understood the woman with the wild eyes. Motherhood makes you both indestructible and incredibly vulnerable. I have tremendous respect for that Malagasy mother (and for the benevolent PhD student, who indulged my twenty-five year old white girl hero complex).
My experience in Madagascar gave me a very real insight into the problems that families face in third-world countries. Even if that mother had been able to afford the US$5 (it’s likely she couldn’t - 69% of the population live on less than US$1 per day), she had no way of accessing medical help.
In Madagascar the infant mortality rate is 44.88 deaths per 1000 live births*. That is for every thousand babies born alive 45 of them die before their first birthdays. In Australia the infant mortality rate is mercifully just 4.43 babies per 1000.
120 Malagasy children out of 1000 die before their fifth birthday*. These beloved children die of Malaria, diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections. It's likely that little tot in the jungle outside of Fianarantsoa would have suffered a similar fate.
At the end of our time in the rainforest, I simply laced up my $200 boots and walked back into my charmed life. In Australia we’re afforded the very best medical care available to us and yet many Australians refuse to be immunised and to vaccinate their children.
Yesterday Baby Riley Hughes died of complications after contracting whooping cough and I'm angry about it. Baby Riley’s family face a lifetime without him because of preventable disease. Herd immunity is essential to help protect the weakest members of our community - very young, the very old and those who cannot be immunised. When herd immunity is low, diseases can get a foothold as we learned first hand when our two fully-immunised daughters contracted whooping cough.
The very idea that we have a debate about immunisation is the folly of privilege.
As people fortunate enough to live in the lucky country, we’ve never run across the scrub, baby in arms, and plead with strangers to save our children. If we had, I doubt we’d have time to waste pontificating over the minuscule potential side effects and we'd get busy with the business of protecting our families.
Footnote: It’s OK to disagree with me on this, but if you choose to please do so in a respectful manner. Get untidy and you’ll find yourself in spanky-town and your comment deleted.
* Source: CIA World Fact Book
** Source: UNICEF
As someone who knows the pain of losing a child, I cannot fathom, not for a heartbeat, why anyone would choose to place their own and others' children in danger. I fully understand that there are risks associated with vaccination, but none so great as the risks of not vaccinating.
Amanda, Cooker and a Looker says
I wholeheartedly agree Robyna. There's no comparison.
Every time I see these kinds of posts, and often the series of nasty comments that follow ( go you for having such a well behaved blog following!) I want to repost a comment I made on a similar feed a while back ( that I'm going to choose to believe was may more articulate than this summary ;-).
My comment was that many of those who _choose_ not to vaccinate* do not do so out of a lack of care for their child, or "sheer stupidity". They do it because they are scared of the consequences of anything other than their choice. If we kept this in mind - I think the big questions we need to answer is - why? why are they scared? In the case of vaccinations - what evidence/stories have they heard that scare them so much? And - this is the important one- what makes these stories so compelling that they make a choice to base their decisions on them?
If we can get a better idea of this then maybe we can ask the really hard question - what are we as the science/medical community NOT doing as well- why are our evidence/pleas/advice less convincing?
We joke about "the plural of anecdote is not data" - but the reality is that most people will find an anecdote from someone they identify with so much more compelling than a broader set of numbers from scientists they don't feel connected to.
*or more broadly make health choices many find questionable
Amanda, Cooker and a Looker says
Agree Meg, we need to understand why folks are more inclined to be swayed by the opinion of celebrities than their own doctors. Since we moved to Glass House, we've finally experienced the "family doctor" style of medicine. One doctor has looked after our family for the past ten years. He's aware of everything going on with all of us. He's nursed our babies since their first checkups and is invested in their well being. It's a relationship that I value and I'd think if more families had access to similar care, they'd be more inclined to trust their GP's advice over anecdotes they read in a parenting forum.
Thanks for your comments above Meg. What a pleasure to read something that tries to understand human behaviour and why we make the decisions we do. We can argue the science forever as science itself will do, but we have to make a decision eventually and that will depend on our own frame of reference, influences and biases.
We also need to remember that most of the parents making the decision possibly weigh up the risks to them. Being born at a time when you don't see hundreds of people with polio, or people just consider other diseases as a pain during childhood. Choosing to not immunise might be easier, because chances of your kids actually dying of an illness are not that high. Imagine an Australian town that experienced a couple of years of outbreak of disease where a number of children died, would that have an effect on immunisation rates in that town?
To me, putting my child at risk of a trip to hospital for any illness is just not worth it.
Amanda Kendle says
Great story and of course I agree entirely with everything you say. "The folly of privilege" is exactly right. The non-vacc'er I know does so because she is scared (probably wrongly, but anyway) for her own children's safety. But to me that seems pretty darn selfish (even before all the scientific evidence comes into play). That's my biggest beef with the whole thing.
Elisha Ross says
I loved your comment by the way…I totally agree. I don't know if we are on the same wavelength but none the less I agree., It is so selfish. I just can't fathom all the issues that will arise in later years esp with girls who are not immunised during child bearing years…It is unbelievable that the mums now can't perceive all the things that could go wrong later down the track..Oh my!!…Folly of privilege alright. The generation of 'don't want to because I can'….I think the scared thing is a bit of an excuse….
Spanky town!! Hahaha, love you!! One a more serious note - well done you for writing what most of us are thinking!! I totally agree - a complete folly of privilege! xx
Amanda, Cooker and a Looker says
Thanks Robyn. x
Emily @ Have A Laugh On Me says
A superb post my friend x
i contracted whooping cough at 47 even though I was immunised as a child it apparently wears off and at that time there wasn't the adult booster . I was horrendously sick for ages and have been left with health problems as a result . I can only imagine how that poor babe suffered and how hard it is for his family to come to grips with such a senseless death from someone else's selfish decision . If you don't want to be part of the herd and help protect our weak and vulnerable then vote yourself off the island !
Sammie @ The Annoyed Thyroid says
Great post - it really puts things in perspective and exposes the folly of our privilege. I'm loving the fact that the comments are so tidy and Spanky Town, that's a thing!
Nancy |Plus Ate Six says
I couldn't agree with Meg more - I think we need to understand the reason why (privileged) parents are choosing not to vaccinate. There is only one grandchild in my family and he is not vaccinated. I dared to ask why to try to understand but to be honest I really didn't get the why. There was a lot regurgitating of 'facts and figures' in favour of not vaccinating but it all seemed a bit wishy washy. It was all said with the complete conviction of someone who has been brainwashed. Great post - I know a few people I'd love to send direct to spanky town.
Robyn Denton says
Well said Amanda. I just don't understand why people don't vaccinate. When I was pregnant with James I asked all family members to get a booster. When my parents went to the doctor to ask. He asked why? When told a new grandchild he said brillant we have to protect our children. And to me it is as simple as that.
The folly of privilege indeed. Beautifully stated.
Deb Baker says
Just brilliant! The folly of privilege. That's exactly it, isn't it. I live in an area where there is a high rate of parents who choose to not immunise their kids. It infuriates me and I've gotten myself into many arguments over the subject. I might in the future just refer them to this article. Thank you.
Dani @ sand has no home says
So true. I can't even imagine the pain of losing a baby.
When it comes to whooping cough, more adults need to understand that they need to have a booster if they will be in contact with a newborn too.
A few years ago both my immunized daughters and myself contracted whooping cough. Both my daughters are asthmatic. I suffer from lupus & fibromyalgia so my immune system is pretty crap. They call whooping cough the 100 day cough & it really is. I had to sleep sitting up. The pain of that horrible, breathless, hacking cough is something I never want to experience again. It infuriates me to no end when I hear people spout about autism as their reason for not immunizing. I have an autistic child and I can tell you now, she is not that way because of immunization. Come meet our extended family and you will see without a doubt that it is genetic.
I agree, we need to look at why this message is not getting across. We are so lucky to have this as a choice when so many people don't and we are abusing that privilege. When I read about this tragic case the other day, all I could think was someone has essentially murdered that poor helpless child through the simple action of not immunizing. How can the anti-immunizers not see the risk they are putting the too young, elderly & immunosuppressed at. If one of their family members died from something that could have been avoided, I wonder if they would change their mind?
Brilliant post. Wholeheartedly agree. So well written x
Becky from BeckyandJames says
Great way to illustrate the point. It's ridiculous that this is an issue when there are women in countries who do not get the chance to protect their precious babes while we're here thinking we have a right to choose.
Great post and an important perspective to be reminded of. My heart breaks for the family of baby Riley.
Nicole - Champagne and Chips says
What a story. You speak negatively of your wealthy white woman urge to help but it shows a lot of compassion that you did help. There are a lot of people who would have simply looked the other way.
I feel very strongly about vaccination but also feel that I have to be (as a sometime health professional) compassionate to those who choose not to vaccinate out of fear. Having said that, I am prepared to go into battle with my sister in law's parents who believe that Malaysia doesn't have whooping cough and therefore they don't need to be vaccinated when they visit my newborn nephew for the first time. I don't know how strong a mother's love is, having never experienced it but this Aunty-love is a force to be reckoned with.