Barbara Sumner-Burstyn: Immunisation choice challenges the herd mentality
New Zealand's top health official, Dr Colin Tukuitonga, has accused midwives of endangering the health of babies by distributing anti-immunisation messages to expectant mothers.

He is so concerned about this deviation from the Ministry of Health status quo that he is suggesting people who disseminate anti-immunisation information could be held legally responsible if a child is damaged by an illness preventable by immunisation.

But looking at overseas trends, perhaps it is Dr Tukuitonga who should be concerned about legal responsibility. In the United States, two class-action suits are pending for damage caused to children because of immunisation.

Both cases revolve around who is responsible for telling parents that vaccines are stabilised with an ingredient called thimerosal. That's mercury to you and me.

The big problem for the defendants in these cases - vaccine manufacturers, the Food and Drug Administration and paediatricians - is that none of them informed parents of the presence of thimerosal, thereby eliminating parental ability to make an informed choice.

Yet informed choice is the very thing that Dr Tukuitonga and Immunisation Advisory Centre director Dr Nikki Turner are trying to stifle.

By denying parents the opportunity to consider a range of immunisation opinions, the good doctors are using the incredible argument that new parents are easily confused and easily scared.

So just what is a conscientious parent to do? Earlier generations of parents were spared such decisions.

They listened to their doctors and believed them; they vaccinated, tonsillectomied, fluoridated and even circumcised with gay abandon. And they were secure in the knowledge that their doctor knew best.

But our generation has lost its blind faith. The reasons are simple enough. If something goes wrong, if a child becomes autistic, dies from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or develops a chronic illness like Crohn's Disease following vaccination, the medical establishment, the pharmaceutical manufacturers or the endorsing governments will not assume responsibility.

And you can be sure that Drs Tukuitonga and Turner will not be taking the blame. Because, for all their protestations of immunisation safety, they would not know an adverse reaction if it jumped up and bit them.

In New Zealand, the reporting of side-effects is voluntary.

According to the Immunisation Awareness Society, many adverse reactions go unreported because medical personnel are not primed to recognise them. Nor does the ministry quantify or verify bacteria, viruses or other ingredients of imported vaccines.

But at the heart of the immunisation debate there is a misconception that goes deeper than the arguments of vaccine safety.

The idea of herd immunity - the protection supposedly assured when a large proportion of a population is vaccinated - is a fundamental element of immunisation. Concomitant to that is the powerful emotion that your unimmunised child is a threat to even the immunised children.

But herd immunity is a hotly disputed topic in medical circles.

Many call it one of the great unresearched myths of science.

Formulated in the early 1900s, herd immunity was based on natural, not artificial, immunity.

Despite reports of epidemics in 100 per cent vaccinated populations and the fact that vaccine efficacy is more of an educated guess than a known fact, there really is no proof that herd immunity occurs in vaccinated populations.

The battery of rigorous, long-term, double-blind, placebo-based controlled trials that are the benchmark in other medical fields are missing from the development of many modern immunisation serums.

So rather than being blinded by drummed-up hysteria, as one pro-immunisation article put it, parents, at least those not made braindead by childbirth, are sifting through all the available information and making the best decisions they can in a world that oversimplifies complex issues.

This is a world where the parent is ultimately responsible for the consequences of every decision.

Where, even if they are misled or misinformed, it will still be their fault when something goes wrong, whichever side of an issue they chose to support.

And perhaps in the end that is the best way. To be the opposite of the blind-faith parent of previous generations, to be as fully conscious, aware and responsible as they are capable of every time they make a major decision.

Consequently, despite Dr Tukuitonga's fury over midwives handing out supposedly wildly inaccurate, anti-immunisation information, he will find increasingly that conscientious parents will think twice about the information produced by Governments intent on shutting down all providers of alternative options.

And even though Drs Tukuitonga and Turner doubt the ability of parents to wade through dissenting immunisation information, they would be surprised at just how smart some parents actually are - despite having had children.