health

Why doctors always, always vaccinate their children.

This doctor has something very important she wants every uncertain parent to know about vaccinations.

I cradle my six-week-old baby girl in my arms. She is all chubby cheeks and dimples, a small pink bundle of delight. She smiles and stretches contentedly, blissfully unaware of the rude shock ahead of her.

Three years ago, almost to the day, it was another six-week old baby in my arms. Let’s call him Henry.

I was working in the Emergency Department of a large children’s hospital. Henry’s parents had noticed a blocked nose and cough a few days prior, and he’d been bluish in the face after coughing episodes. He seemed to be tiring easily when breastfeeding, and he was unsettled and cranky, most unusual for him. He’d had less than half his usual number of wet nappies, and he had a low-grade fever on arrival to the Department.

His five-year-old brother (we’ll call him Tom) was well apart from a runny nose. Tom was fully immunised, as were his parents and grandparents. Tiny Henry was admitted to hospital with pertussis, better known as whooping cough, and went on to spend the next fortnight in hospital, including a week-long intensive care stay. He survived. As we were tragically reminded once again just last week, not all those young babies with whooping cough are so lucky.

Riley Hughes died last week from whooping cough. He was four weeks old.

I have never met a doctor who doesn’t vaccinate their children. I have never met a nurse who doesn’t vaccinate their children. I’ve never met a medical student who doesn’t vaccinate their children.

So why aren’t we getting our message across to some members of our community who still refuse to vaccinate?

One thing my profession hasn’t always done well is communicate effectively with our patients. We are getting much, much better; communication is a core component of every modern medical school curriculum. But not so long ago, it was common for doctors to make the decisions on behalf of the patients. And let’s face it; we don’t have a perfect record of always getting it right.

More: The advice to pregnant women that came too late to save Riley Hughes.

But one thing we do well these days is apply principles of evidence-based medicine. That is, practice medicine in accordance with the best-available scientific evidence.

Critical appraisal of the scientific literature is not just typing a query into Google. It is not just looking at the results of studies. It is looking at who has performed these studies, how they were designed, how the subjects were recruited, how the analysis of results was performed. What the biases were, whether the conclusions drawn are appropriate, real, or whether the investigators have fudged their results. Unfortunately it is not easy to analyse studies and scientific data. In fact, it can actually take years to learn how to do it properly. Furthermore, we know all too well that studies can be falsified, biased, and incorrect. Investigators can be unscrupulous.

There is no better example of this than Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent research linking autism and the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccination, as published by The Lancet in 1998. This has been thoroughly debunked, formally retracted by The Lancet (in 2004), and Mr Wakefield has been stripped of his medical license. Yet his scurrilous legacy remains.

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Let me say this now: There is no evidence of any causative link between any vaccination and autism.

There is no evidence of any causative link between vaccines and autism.

Why do doctors vaccinate? I asked my colleague, a GP with 30 years’ experience, who recalled the child who died in her arms of meningitis due to infection with bacteria called haemophilus influenzae B (known as Hib). Vaccination against Hib was introduced in Australia in 1993, and rates of the disease have since plummeted. The last death attributable to this disease was in 1999. I have never seen a case in a child nor adult. In fact, most people have probably never heard of it. Don’t bother committing it to memory. Thanks to our immunisation program, we no longer have to worry about it.

More information: Childhood vaccinations are dates you don’t want to forget. And now you never will.

Why do doctors vaccinate? Because my talented colleague, a paediatrician from Africa, will always be unable to kick a soccer ball with his children due to polio, which has left his legs twisted and deformed. He walks with crutches, slowly and with pain. Unlike Australia, which has had polio vaccination since 1956 and had its last reported case of poliomyelitis in 1966, his country doesn’t have a national vaccination program and the disease is still rampant.

Why do I vaccinate my children, and recommend that others do the same? Because I do not want a child to die in my arms of preventable disease, nor in the arms of anyone else.

Because I never again want to see a child with brain damage due to a complication of measles.

Because watching babies struggle to breathe due to diseases preventable by vaccination is heartbreaking, not just for their families, doctors and nurses, but for whole communities.

Australia, I think we can do better.

There have been several preventable measles outbreaks in Australia in the past 12 months.

If you’re not sure about vaccination, or if you have questions, please come and talk to us.

Some of us are better than others at explaining the science behind the requirement to vaccinate. But we are here to answer your questions and we do want to address your concerns. Let’s talk about it.

And as for that delightful baby girl in the first paragraph? The doctor and the practice nurse count ‘One… two… three’ and each plunge a sharp needle into the soft pink skin of my daughter’s pudgy six week old thighs. Her eyes widen in alarm and she screws up her tiny face and howls in protest.

It’s okay, my love, it’s okay. You are going to be just fine.

**All names have been changed.

Kate is a doctor working in critical care medicine, with degrees in medicine, science and public health. She’s also mum to a 2-year-old boy and a 3-month-old girl.