Annemarie Quill: Wise up, choose to immunise

By Annemarie Quill

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Epidemic movies hold an infectious appeal, despite the plots being as predictable as the common cold.

Whether it's Gwyneth Paltrow in the opening scenes of Contagion with the sniffles - or Patrick Dempsey getting all feverish after stealing a white monkey in Outbreak - you know it is all going to turn deadly.

One by one people will die horrible deaths. Learned scientists try to get the attention of government officials. No-one listens and mass panic descends. But eventually our hero scientists win the day, and the world is saved.

Entertaining viewing if you're quarantined at home with the flu. But unfortunately deadly diseases are not just the stuff of fiction.

West Africa is in the grip of a deadly Ebola epidemic with 467 deaths and more cases continuing to emerge according to the World Health Organisation.

In May came warnings that a new HIV pandemic was a real "possibility" due to new drug-resistant strains of the virus. In the same month a group of British scientists warned new antibiotic resistant superbugs were reaching "crisis level".

The World Health Organisation has released a report warning that common infections such as pneumonia, diarrhoea and urinary tract infections could become fatal as antibiotic-resistant bacteria increase.

UK microbiologist Professor Mark Fielder conjured up this stark image in the British Observer newspaper.

"In the near future it is possible that a scratch from a garden rose thorn could become septic. Without effective antibiotics, septicaemia could easily set in and result in death.

"It is a terrible prospect but a very real one. We are facing a return to the state of affairs that existed before antibiotics were discovered."

The recent story of British father Alex Lewis is more horrific than any disaster movie plot.

The 34-year-old had what he thought was a cold, but ended up losing both legs, an arm and part of his face, and last month the Daily Mail reported he was to lose his last remaining limb.

He was the victim of a flesh-eating bug - not some exotic strain picked up in Africa or Asia like in epidemic movies, but a common bacteria that many of us may get with a sore throat, Strep A.

Last year a Wellington teacher was reported to be the first New Zealander to die of a superbug, resistant to antibiotics.

There are illnesses that science has been able to eradicate through vaccinations (smallpox), or reduce (polio).

When scientists are striving to develop effective vaccines for deadly diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, we can be grateful for the range of vaccinations available in New Zealand.

This week a new state-funded vaccine became available for babies to protect against the tummy bug rotavirus.

The Government will pay for young children to have the oral vaccine.

With the addition of RotaTeq to the immunisation schedule, the Government now offers all children vaccines against 10 diseases at no charge.

With such a programme one would hope that common childhood diseases such as measles and whooping cough would be scarce.

But they are not. Last year the Western Bay experienced a whooping cough epidemic. A raft of measles cases are sweeping the North Island with Waikato District Health Board confirming the most, with 96 cases. This week we reported the Bay of Plenty has had its first confirmed case of measles in more than six months.

Toi Te Ora medical officer of health Dr Neil de Wet said Bay of Plenty immunisation rates for children at 24 months are about 89-90 per cent, but are lower at 5 years old at about 70 per cent.

The Government's target is that 90 per cent of 8-month-olds will have their primary course of immunisation on time by this month and 95 per cent by December.

For the first three months of this year, the target was achieved for 91 per cent of 8-month-olds nationally. In 14 of the 20 health districts, the result was better than 90 per cent.

While Bay of Plenty immunisation rates were poor several years ago, figures show that they have improved, with health campaigns seeming to work.

But what of the 10 per cent in the Bay not getting their babies vaccinated, or the 30 per cent of 5-year-olds?

Associate Health Minister Jo Goodhew has warned people to check if they are immunised, noting how serious and infectious the disease is.

Dr De Wet tells me that another key focus is improving the immunisation rate in the 10 year to 20 year age group, estimated at just 60 to 70 per cent in the Bay of Plenty.

The good news is that it is not too late to catch up with immunisations. So with all the publicity, why are our immunisation rates not higher?

Parents who decline vaccinations are legally within their rights and may argue that this freedom should remain.

But their choice not to vaccinate can have serious consequences not just for their children, but for the community.

We are in such a privileged position in this country to have free vaccinations readily available.

While parents may argue they know what's best for their child, most are not doctors or scientists.

While I am a keen researcher and obsessive googler of all things relating to my children, when it comes to medical issues, I put faith in science.

Some parents remain afraid of vaccinations.

Considerable damage was done by a since discredited report in 1998 by Dr Andrew Wakefield in the Lancet, which linked the measles, mumps, rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. Dr Wakefield has been struck off the medical register for professional misconduct.

Yet the unfounded scare caused many to abandon the vaccine which could explain the glut of unvaccinated teenagers.

This week extensive new US research ruled out any link between MMR and autism.

Radio New Zealand reported the American Academy of Pediatrics report "aimed to address a growing problem of parents refusing child vaccinations because of fears over such links that has contributed to outbreaks of measles and whooping cough".

The study looked at a range of vaccines given to children aged under 6 in the US and found no association with autism in children, no evidence the polio vaccine caused food allergies and no link between the Hepatitis B vaccine and childhood leukaemia.

The research did report findings of side effects of vaccinations, including fever and seizures.

Last year legislation was presented in New South Wales, Australia, whether preschools and childcare centres should be given the legal right to ban unvaccinated children.

The proposal came in light of declining rates of vaccination that in some parts of the state were lower than in Rwanda, and followed a scare over an outbreak of German measles in Britain, where vaccination rates are still recovering from the Wakefield scare.

While kindergartens, childcare centres and schools here in New Zealand may collect vaccination data about children, there has been no move to exclude children who are not immunised. No doubt there would be an outcry from the liberals if there was such a move. With parental freedom recently winning a battle with a school over a boy's haircut, I can't imagine an immunisation ruling being enforced.

It is a pity because in my view people who refuse to immunise children are just plain irresponsible.

Given all the scientific evidence in favour of vaccinations, the anti-immunisation crowd, for me, fall into the same camp as conspiracy theorists who believe Elvis is working down the chip shop, we never landed on the moon and ET is watching our every move.

Unfortunately the liberal luxury of choice over immunisations may lead to a return of outbreaks of illnesses we could almost stamp out. It could result in death.

If you have any questions, talk to your doctor or practice nurse or call the Immunisation Advisory Centre free helpline on 0800 IMMUNE (0800 466 863).

- BAY OF PLENTY TIMES

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