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.
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