Few subjects are as polarising as that of childhood vaccinations, as evidenced by the 250 reader comments in response to The sharp end of the vaccination debate which I wrote when non-vaccinated children were banned from a west Auckland school to contain the spread of measles.

Perennially topical, vaccinations hit the headlines again with the hospitalisation of an unvaccinated 7-year-old Auckland boy for tetanus. I hope his recovery, which evidently may take as long as twelve months, proceeds well - and I also hope his story raises awareness and perhaps makes other parents recognise the importance of having their children vaccinated.

The parents of unvaccinated children fall into two distinct camps. The first group was well represented in the comments section of my 2011 piece. These people based their decision to not vaccinate on extensive personal investigation. One gave it "very serious consideration and a great deal of research" while another claimed to have "spent countless hours reviewing a very complicated issue." Yet another devoted "several months, hundreds of hours" and another "3 months of hard study."

Fuelling the perceived need for these people to embark on independent study (in which, peculiarly, the emphasis seems to be on the duration of the research rather than quality of the inputs and conclusion) is a deep suspicion of the medical profession and pharmaceutical companies. It's concern about the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines that non-vaccinators often cite as the reason for their stance.


A recurring theme among these non-vaccinators seems to be that they believe themselves to be intellectually superior to those of us who have had our children vaccinated. "Most people that choose not to vaccinate have Masters degrees or higher," said one. "[S]tatistically speaking, the higher a person's level of education, the less likely they are to vaccinate," claimed another.

This attitude was a revelation to me. I hadn't realised that not vaccinating your children was considered a badge of honour in some circles, that it can be interpreted as a sign of being a deeper thinker, a more discerning citizen. It's worrying to discover that this decision has become something of a status symbol in some quarters. The cosy subtext between these non-vaccinators is that they are smarter, more analytical and more open-minded than those who have sipped the drug company Kool-Aid and had their children immunised.

In this context, the reason why non-vaccinators stress the level of research undertaken in order to reach this decision becomes clear. It's used as a knowing code to clearly separate them from the second group of parents with unvaccinated children: these are people who belong to less advantaged sectors of society - people who most certainly don't have hundreds of spare hours to devote to research, people who may not be aware of the existence of immunisation programmes, people who may not have ready access to medical professionals, people who may believe they're unable to afford such health services.

In fact, in "[a]ll childhood immunisations are free in New Zealand. All immigrant and non-resident children are eligible for free immunisations ... regardless of their immigration and citizenship status."

According to the Ministry of Health, "[i]mmunisation can protect people against harmful infections, which can cause serious complications, including death." Its website lists the "vaccines that are offered free to babies, children, adolescents and adults"; these include diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, hepatitis B, measles, mumps and rubella.

With any luck, the heightened awareness and media attention resulting from the recent case of tetanus might inspire some parents to have their children immunised. However, anyone who is using their non-vaccination credentials as proof of their superior intellect is likely to remain steadfast even in the face of such cautionary tales.

What's your stance on vaccinations? Are your children up-to-date with the national immunisation schedule or have you opted for a different approach?
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