Why is it in Australia that we seem to have such militant lobby groups around our health care system?  You can’t go within coo-ee of a labour ward without realising there’s a virtual war of words going on between midwives and obstetricians.  The midwives accuse the obs of over-medicalising childbirth and being too interventionist.  The obstetricians think the midwives are too focussed on the process at the expense of outcomes.  Or something like that.

There’s strong feeling on both sides of the vaccination debate too.  Those who are against vaccinations are really against them.  Last week though, one mother’s story was dominating the headlines.   That of Toni McCaffery, who lost her four-week-old baby girl, Dana, to whooping cough last year.  Toni wasn’t particularly involved in the vaccination debate before her baby died, but after Dana’s death became public, she says she was targetted by anti-vaccination lobbyists who argued that Dana must have died of something other than whooping cough.  The lobbyists believe the vaccine is more dangerous than the disease.  But if a four week old baby dies, that throws the theory out with the bathwater.

I interviewed Toni McCaffery on my radio show last week.  (You can listen to the interview here.) I was surprised by how mild mannered and reasonable she was about the vaccination debate.  If my baby had died of whooping cough, I would be shaking my fist in rage at anybody who didn’t vaccinate their kids.  Toni simply makes the point that her area on the north coast has the lowest rates of vaccination and also the highest rates of whooping cough.  For vaccinations to be effective, she says, you need a high level of herd immunity, so that those who are most vulnerable – like newborn babies – aren’t exposed to the disease.  As soon as the vaccination rate drops, community safety is threatened.  Those who choose not to vaccinate have to be sure they can live with the knowledge that it may not be their child who dies from the disease – it may be the newborn baby they unknowingly pass it on to.

I don’t doubt that there may be some problems with vaccinations.  Every time my daughter has been vaccinated, she has developed a persistent unexplained cough for about a week after.  There’s been some suggestion of links to increased asthma.  I have no idea if there’s any evidence for that.  But if that’s what it takes to make sure that somebody like Toni McCaffery doesn’t lose her newborn to whooping cough, then I’m quite happy to make that sacrifice.  Overall, we all benefit.  Our kids aren’t dying or deformed as a result of smallpox, rubella, or polio.  Not to mention the fact that there are many places in the world where vaccines aren’t so widely available and people still suffer the consequences of preventable diseases.  Maybe if we had to live with those consequences ourselves, we wouldn’t take our health system for granted so much.  I guess that’s exactly what Toni McCaffery is doing… living every day with the terrible consequences of somebody else’s decision not to vaccinate their child.

Did you vaccinate your children?  Do you think there are too many vaccines these days?  Do you have concerns about some vaccines or are you in favour of widespread vaccination?