Passions were running hot on websites and internet forums yesterday as people responded to a push by politicians and North Coast Public Health officials to raise local immunisation rates.
Legislation, proposed by NSW opposition leader John Robertson to empower preschools and childcare centres to refuse children who are not vaccinated, incurred the ire of parents committed to the non-immunisation path.
While the now-familiar arguments and conspiracy theories for and against were flying thick and fast on Echonetdaily’s website, no ground was being given by either side of the fiercely polarised issue.
Acclaimed Australian filmmaker Sonya Pemberton, director of a new SBS documentary, Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines, that will screen nationally this Sunday, was similarly affected by the disturbing undercurrent of the ‘debate’.
Ms Pemberton poses the question that perhaps we need to find a new way to negotiate the divide?
‘I’m not a vaccine advocate (although I’m vaccinated). I am someone who accepts the need for vaccines, and yet has questions,’ she explains on the show’s website.
‘I seek a new conversation around vaccination, one where we can ask questions without being rude, where we can embrace complexity,’ she said.
Byron Shire residents were also divided on the question. Mac Nicholson told Echonetdaily he agreed with both sides of the argument.
‘If you never want your child to get whooping cough you should vaccinate them. Well, at least the odds are better they won’t get it. If you never want your child to have ongoing health problems throughout their lives you should never vaccinate them, or at least the odds are better if you don’t. This is the world, folks. It is full of contradictions and does not contain any certainties whatsoever’.
Ash Thompson said, ‘how dare the government tell anyone how to raise their child and take away our rights and options. It’s ridiculous to not use natural remedies. I never vaccinated my children and no probs; if anything was going around such as whooping cough, I would vaccinate homoeopathically.’
Ilona Roberts said, ‘Mullum might have the lowest vaccination rate, but does it have correspondingly high rates of diphtheria and whooping cough? If so, the argument to force parents to vaccinate might have some substance. If not, those pushing might need to rethink their case. If vaccines work, vaccinated children should be in no danger when in contact with unvaccinated children. Isn’t that the point of getting jabbed in the first place? Otherwise why do I get shots before going overseas?’
As diseases that were effectively eradicated 40 years ago begin to re-emerge, the SBS documentary Jabbed explores the juxtaposition of facts and fears on both sides, and asks how parents reach a thoughtful, informed decision in such a climate.
Ms Pemberton said that in 2009 she made a documentary called Catching Cancer, which explored how some cancers are caused by viruses ‘and how this is surprisingly good news, for if a virus is to blame, then we can try to create vaccines to counter them’.
‘After the film went to air I received lots of feedback, mostly positive. But I also received feedback from people strongly opposed to vaccines, particularly the cervical-cancer vaccines, and some of this feedback was angry, even nasty.’
Ms Pemberton didn’t recognise the depth of distrust she encountered and wanted to understand.
‘I spent months listening to stories: stories of children who died from lack of a vaccine; stories of children seriously hurt after vaccines; and stories of parents trying to make sense of it all,’ she explained.
‘There was a point when I was overloaded; I cried so many tears for so many families. I was exhausted from all the statistics and counter-statistics, and weary of the ridicule and nastiness on both sides.
‘I was scared of the diseases and scared of the rare (but real) vaccine reactions. It all seemed too complex. At that point I wanted to walk away from making a film about vaccines.’
But like any good filmmaker, she couldn’t. Three years later she says she has travelled a remarkable journey and wants to generate a ‘new style of conversation around vaccines’.
‘Three years ago I was an unquestioning vaccine supporter. Then, as I began delving deeper, I realised that occasionally vaccines can do harm. I understood the extraordinary freedom from disease vaccines have delivered, but now I also understood the fear,’ she said.
‘Today I see that there are risks involved, and how it helps to have these risks acknowledged; that it is a business like so many others (one driven by extraordinary people and flawed people) and we must pay attention and hold it accountable.
‘Today when someone says to me they don’t “believe in” vaccination, I no longer thunder back crossly, “It’s not about faith, it’s science!”.
‘Instead I ask them, “Why?” Their reasons are as varied as the people themselves. They often teach me a great deal and many are genuinely seeking a conversation, not simply looking to affirm their pre-existing position. And so we listen to each other’s stories.’
Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines screens on SBS One this Sunday at 8.30pm.