Vaccination, bottle-feeding and a moral quandary{0}

My father’s friend is incredible.  He never forgets a birthday, an anniversary, an opportunity to congratulate you on your latest achievement.  It’s impossible to out-compliment him; despite rising to the height of his profession of broadcasting, being on numerous national boards, he is the definition of charm and humility.

He also walks with a cane, a two inch build-up on his right shoe and has limited use of his right arm and right leg.  He was born with polio, which his mother contracted while pregnant with him.  He is a triumph of a human being, and although his polio no doubt helped make him the man he is today, he is also a walking advertisement for why vaccination should be seen as a universal right as well as a privilege and a brilliant idea.

The Australian government has just announced it will deny childcare benefits worth up to AUD$15,000 to parents who don’t vaccinate their children.

As a fierce supporter of vaccination I might naturally be expected to shout ‘hallelujah’ at the news, but honestly, it has left me feeling a little conflicted.

I believe vaccination is, with very rare exceptions, universally good.  I believe it is not only the responsibility of parents to take advantage of this amazing discovery of science to look after their own children, but it is also their responsibility as members of a community to help create herd immunity and protect those who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons.

So far, so easy.

But as a bottle-feeding mother who has openly questioned the dogma of ‘breast is best for all babies at all times’ , in which it often feels like parents are punished for taking a decision outside the government-mandated norm, the idea sits a little uncomfortably.

Let me be clear; I am not equating vaccination with breastfeeding.  Vaccination stops a host of terrible diseases that kill and maim.  Breastfeeding does not.  Not vaccinating is exposing your child, and other children, to unnecessary risk of serious illness.  Not breastfeeding means your kid might have a handful more episodes of diarrhoea in their lifetime, or potentially one or two more colds.  Not vaccinating is a choice.  For many women, not breastfeeding is not a choice; it is a biological or sociological diktat they are forced to follow.

So, what makes me squirm a little?  I think it is the punitive nature of the new policy.  I worry that when governments legislate about choices parents make for their child, that they encroach on a domain that is not theirs.  I harbour a fear that if we go down this route, that when it comes to feeding, one day we could all end up like the United Arab Emirates, where it is mandatory for women to breastfeed their children until they are two (and husbands can sue if they don’t.)

Knowing how demonised bottle-feeding parents can be for their choices, by other parents, but also by some of the medical establishment, often on the basis of ‘evidence’ that is misinterpreted, old, or just plain unreliable, the demonisation of parents who don’t vaccinate makes me feel uncomfortable too.

The difference is, the evidence on the benefits of vaccination is a lay-down mazere.  The evidence on breastfeeding less-so.

I don’t want my daughter going to a daycare where kids in her class aren’t vaccinated.  I  don’t want people to be sucked in to the bullshit pumped out by the anti-vaxxers, who prey on vulnerable parents using a combination of half-truths and straight-out lies mixed in with a dogmatic believe in ‘the natural’ and an imaginary media-big-pharma conspiracy.

It would be travesty if we went back on a century of science, because our Western privilege has made us forget how serious pertussis and tetanus and measles and mumps and rubella are, and how lucky we are to live in a time and a place where we can do something about that.

I think the question is, will stopping childcare benefits actually change the behaviour and outlook of parents.  Is the stick any better than the carrot in this case?

I’m not sure.  In my experience, waving a big government stick at people who are already suspicious of government doesn’t really change opinions, it just embeds them.

But is encouraging uptake of vaccination the aim, or is the aim simply to protect the majority of children?  Surely it must be both.

So, with some reservation, I support the new policy, and I really hope that it has the effect of not just keeping unvaccinated kids out of daycare, but also of encouraging parents to get jabs for their kids.  Let’s also hope that rather than simply demonising parents, it can also be accompanied with some straight-talking, no bullshit education, because that’s what eventually wins over hearts and minds.

At its peak in the 1940s and 1950s polio killed or paralysed half a million people worldwide every year.  In 2013, the number was 416.  That was down to vaccination.

As anyone who has ever known anyone with polio can attest, this is nothing short of miracle – not of God, but of science, education and humanity.

Vaccination is a good thing.  We shouldn’t need $15,000 in benefits to convince us of that.  But if nothing else will, then we may as well give this a crack.