Every few months there's a report of an outbreak of some super bug or other in a hospital, and how everyone's down on their hands and knees, scrubbing the place with disinfectants.

I'm not sure how many die in New Zealand hospitals from bugs they pick up within the health care facilities they've come to to get cured of something else. In the United States, Scientific American magazine calculates the annual death rate at around 100,000. Mostly preventable.

Ministry of Health figures recording the number of district health board staff who refused a free flu vaccination last year gives a good clue why the old saying that hospitals are a dangerous place for the old and the young, persists. And for good reason.

Only 57 per cent of doctors bothered to protect themselves from this infectious - and for their patients - potentially deadly disease. And they were the best of the hospital workers. Only 50 per cent of cleaners bothered either. But they were better than the nurses on 46 per cent.


Bottom of the pile were the midwives, the group of health workers that have always moaned about not being treated, either within the profession or outside, as equals when it came to their line of business - the care of mothers and the newborn. Yet just 37 per cent of them thought it worth vaccinating themselves against what is a potentially killer disease for young babies. An apologist for the midwives said yesterday it was "an informed consent issue" that "in the end, it is a person's right to decline the vaccine".

A midwife complained that "all the information you get is pro-vaccine". She was defending her right not to be vaccinated and instead "boost her immune system".

As 21st century "professionals", has it not occurred to either of the above, or the majority of unvaccinated healthcare workers, that the reason all the information is pro-vaccine is because for 300 years, vaccination has been a safe and proven preventative against a scourge of dreadful diseases like smallpox, polio and yes, influenza.

Sure it's not 100 per cent effective when it comes to influenza. More in the 80 per cent range. But surely when you enter as a customer into the public health system, you should expect the staff, be they the form fillers at the front counter, the cleaners and kitchen staff, and the doctors and nurses, to have taken this basic act of public health.

Whether the midwives' reluctance to be vaccinated is just laziness or the result of New Age anti-science, woolly-headedness, their anti-vaccine attitudes seem to have infected the mothers in their care in other areas.

This month, a ministry message to health professionals warned that the number of pregnant women being vaccinated for whooping cough was low - despite the vaccine being free. This in the middle of an epidemic which from August 2011 to February hit 8249 victims, 465 of them needing hospitalisation. Infants under 1 are at highest risk of "serious outcomes" from whooping cough, accounting for 582 cases during the current outbreak and 278 - 60 per cent - of all hospitalisations.

These children had no say in the "informed choice" made on their behalf not to be vaccinated. It is worrying that midwives could have passed these discredited folk tales on to new mothers.

Each year, 400 or so New Zealanders die, either directly or indirectly, from the flu. Last winter, 1370 flu victims were admitted to hospital, 38 ending up in intensive care. There seem to be no figures about how many patients went home with the disease, having caught it from one of their carers. From the number of potential "typhoid Marys" wandering our hospitals in white coats or uniforms, my guess is, a lot.

In cities like San Francisco and Santa Clara, health care staff have the choice of vaccination or of wearing a mask at all times. In some states it is compulsory. It seems ridiculous our health services don't step into the 21st century and do likewise.