The Kaitaia GP, Dr Lance O'Sullivan, was named Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year in 2014 for his leadership, vision and advocacy in healthcare. He had established a low-cost clinic in one of the country's poorest regions. He had also set up Northland's first fulltime school clinic and started a programme to repair run-down houses in the Far North on the principle that health begins in warm, safe homes.
No wonder, therefore, he has vented his frustration with parents who refuse to immunise their children against common diseases, and expressed his fury at the insidious propaganda against vaccines being circulated by a group calling themselves WavesNZ. They are organising secret, ticket-only screenings of a discredited American film called, Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe.
O'Sullivan and other health professionals were invited to a screening in Kaitaia on Tuesday night. There he went on stage and told the organisers exactly what they were doing. He said, "Your presence here will cause babies to die."
He has taken some abuse on social media for his actions but he deserves the utmost commendation. He has demonstrated leadership and advocacy where it most matters - confronting an attitude to medical science that too often takes refuge in the rights of individuals and free speech. Vaccination is not simply a matter of an individual's right to choose. The individual is usually a parent making the choice for a child, and not just their child. A critical mass of immunity needs to be built up in the community if diseases are not to take hold.
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As O'Sullivan pointed out, if there is not sufficient "herd immunity" a child can get a deadly infection before it has a chance to be immunised. As he graphically described the issue to RNZ this week, "We are trying to save a child's life, we put it on a helicopter, it flies to Starship Hospital, the kidney's are failing, its heart is failing, its lungs are failing - all because we didn't put a bloody $7.50 meningococcal vaccine into that child's thigh."
He has noticed a decline in vaccination in his region this year. It is nothing less than a tragedy that these days, when medical science has proven its ability to rid the world of diseases that previously caused epidemics, some people are easily persuaded to distrust it. They often seize on a remote adverse possibility and expect doctors to rule it out. Science seldom categorically rules anything out.
As he has put it, "There are really minimal adverse reactions to immunisations and if you compare this to the significant benefit conveyed to these children there is no doubt we should protect our children in this manner."
For some the distrust appears to be based on nothing more substantial than the fact that medicines are discovered, produced and marketed as a business. "Pharma whore", was one of the less delightful terms flung at O'Sullivan in social media.
If untrained individuals want to let their reading and suspicions harm their own health, it is up to them. But when their children's health is at stake, it is hard to fathom how someone could rate his or her own judgment above the collective wisdom of the medical profession. They are putting lives at risk and doctors like Lance O'Sullivan do us all a service when they stand up and say so.