The father of a little girl who lost parts of her limbs to meningococcal disease has lashed out at anti-vaccination campaigners, likening their message to "hate speech", and saying it should be a "jailable offence".
As debate rages about the biggest immunisation campaign this country has seen, Perry Bisman - whose daughter Charlotte lost the lower parts of all four limbs to meningococcal B last July - accused anti-vaccination campaigners of spreading false information about the vaccine and making unsubstantiated allegations about the Ministry of Health.
"They're making very emotional, highly-charged, controversial statements without facts to back it up," said Mr Bisman. "To me, it's the same as hate speech."
Anti-vaccination campaigners have made claims implying the Ministry of Health has conspired with the pharmaceutical industry to introduce an "experimental" vaccine into New Zealand.
They claim the vaccine is unnecessary and not as safe as the Ministry says it is.
Speaking from Auckland's Artificial Limbs Centre, where Charlotte was being fitted for a new set of prosthetic legs, Mr Bisman said he was disgusted by anti-vaccination rhetoric, which he feared would stop some parents having their children vaccinated.
"If the worst happened and a child developed this disease because their parents had been misinformed, to me that's a jailable offence, a criminal offence."
So far, 190,000 New Zealanders under the age of 20 have been immunised against the epidemic strain of meningococcal disease, and more than double that number have received at least one of the three doses needed for it to be fully effective.
Having witnessed the ravages of meningococcal B, Mr Bisman is passionate about the cause for immunisation.
"The whole point of me being involved in any of this is to make something positive come out of Charlotte'stragedy," he said.
The vaccination debate has reached crescendo over the last two weeks, with the pros and cons of the meningococcal B vaccine being argued at public meetings, on websites, radio and television. At least one parent has established her own website to provide other parents with information about the vaccine.
Mr Bisman has been infuriated with the Ministry of Health's response to what he says are unsubstantiated claims and allegations by anti-vaccination campaigners in the recent public debate.
"My criticism of the Ministry of Health is that they just haven't bitten back hard enough," he said.
The Ministry did not condemn strongly enough "defamatory and slanderous" remarks made by researcher Barbara Sumner Burstyn on TVNZ current affairs show Close Up just over a week ago, said Mr Bisman.
"Because they don't want to be seen as the bad guys, they're taking a back seat and letting her, with her anti-immunisation rhetoric, just take over the debate. So for every minute of airtime she's given, that's like thousands of kids aren't going to get vaccinated."
No one from the Ministry of Health was available to comment.
Mrs Sumner Burstyn said she was not a campaigner but a journalist trying to expose the truth in the face of an "epidemic of gullibility".
This week marks the anniversary of Charlotte's mother, Pam Cleverley, first noticing the reddish blemish on her daughter's neck. She was flown to Auckland's Starship Children's Hospital for life-saving treatment.
Ten months after Charlotte's discharge from Starship, the baby girl, who turned one in November, was measured up for her fourth set of artificial legs since her own limbs were amputated.
The epoxy acrylic resin legs, worth about $4000 each, will be shorter than Charlotte's own legs would be and will lack feet to enable her to stand more easily.
Charlotte, who was only eight months old when she had amputation surgery, has adapted to her truncated limbs, scooting around quickly and manipulating objects easily with her "stumpies".
"She's an inspiration because she's happy as Larry," said Ms Cleverley.
Charlotte's story will feature on Inside New Zealand on TV3 next month.
- HERALD ON SUNDAY