Mariah and Mark Johnson* live with their three children in a small, isolated town in South Gippsland, Australia. It's home to maybe 2,000 people at most. In August 2015, the couple's six-month-old son came down with what they thought was the flu. At first, no one was too worried. But after a week, things started going downhill fast. The boy was coughing uncontrollably, making what they describe as "whooping sounds." Then he started to turn blue.
At South Gippsland Hospital, Mariah and Mark learned their son didn't actually have the flu—it was whooping cough, a disease that can be deadly for children under six months old. "What happens is that an infant will cough so much, and so intensely, they can just abruptly asphyxiate. There's no 'progression'—it's an immediate and uncontrollable death," medical resident Georgia Thomas* told VICE. "It's so important to protect children from this."
Even in a small town, it's hard to trace exactly how Mariah and Mark's young son caught whooping cough. What is known is that a child who went to the same school as the older Johnson children came down with it too. This child was from a family who'd made the decision not to vaccinate their kids. The whole Johnson family had received the recommended whooping cough vaccines, except for their youngest son.
And this is the Achille's Heel of vaccination programs—controlling outbreaks relies on a large percentage of the population being inoculated, also known as "herd immunity." Particularly in a town with just a few thousand residents, unvaccinated kids can have a big effect. Whooping cough can be particularly tricky because people who've had the vaccine can still be carriers of the infection, show no symptoms, and infect others.
When the Johnson's youngest son took a turn for the worse, he was quickly rushed to the local hospital. But in that condition the small rural facility couldn't help him. So he was airlifted to Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital in an attempt to save his life. It proved to be the right call. After five days in ICU with mechanical ventilation and antibiotics, the boy survived and was returned back to South Gippsland Hospital to be monitored.
Not everyone is so lucky. For every 200 children under six months old who are infected with whooping cough, one will die. In South Australia, there have already been 260 cases of whooping cough, up from 182 just last year. What makes these statistics even more tragic is that these deaths are completely preventable. The whooping cough vaccine is highly effective in combating the disease. It's even on the National Immunisation Program Schedule, which means you can go to any doctor and receive this vaccination—and many others—totally free of charge. So, why are deaths still happening?
Steve and Jane Smith are a GP and immunology nurse, who've each worked in the medical and immunology field for over 35 years in both general practice and the Royal Melbourne Children's Hospital. They say the outbreaks we've seen around Australia—including the Melbourne measles and chickenpox outbreaks in 2016—are happening because parents aren't convinced vaccines are safe.
"We know vaccines have saved millions of lives and despite no credible studies or evidence suggesting vaccines aren't safe, people are still scared," Steve tells VICE. "Their fears aren't factual and once they believe something, they'll find answers anywhere. We understand [the fear] but they're purely emotional, illogical and they're not worth putting the community or children at risk."
"Not all vaccines are 100 percent effective and there's a risk with any drug you take, but people forget how damaging these diseases are. I remember once seeing a 10-year-old boy contract measles. It was horrifying and now he's permanently damaged as a result. A slight fever is a much better alternative than what these diseases can do," says Jane.
This is the scary thing. There is no scientific evidence to suggest that vaccines do more harm than good. And yet a massive 53 percent of Australians remained concerned with how safe vaccines actually are. Anti-vaxxers have even secured supporters in federal politics: Pauline Hanson notoriously encouraged parents to do their own research before getting their children vaccinated during an interview on ABC's Insiders. In the US, there were reports earlier this year that President Trump asked leading vaccine skeptic Robert F Kennedy Jr to lead a commission into vaccine safety.
The politics around vaccines is one thing, but why a parent would be set against vaccinating their child is a much more complicated question. Researchers from the Centre for Empirical Research in Economics and Behavioural Sciences at the University of Erfurt in Germany point to the internet. A study they conducted found exposure to an anti-vaccine website for just five to 10 minutes not only increased fears about the risks of vaccinations, but also decreased their concerns about not vaccinating their child.
"Anti-vaccinationists use a lot of emotive language and images which is convincing to the casual reader," says John Cunningham, a lifelong vaccine advocate and spokesman for pro-vaccine Stop the Australian Vaccine Network. "But when you look at what they're claiming, all their evidence is easily proven false… Everyone's concerned about children but the difference is that vaccine advocates have evidence on their side."
Emotion explains why some parents become anti-vaccine. But it's still hard to make sense of how someone could remain opposed to vaccines in the face of all the evidence John points to. One study by the Mayo Clinic documented the presence of cognitive dissonance in the anti-vaccine movement, and found it was very common for anti-vaxxers to cherry pick evidence that suited their beliefs or provided an explanation—regardless of its quality. A classic case of confirmation bias.
Curious about how parents who're against vaccines rationalise their decision, I reached out to Jasmin Corningstone, a Sydney mother who refuses to vaccinate her four-month-old baby. "Vaccines are a huge gamble. You might come out of the other end safe, but that's a one in a billion chance," she says. "There's no way I'm risking my child's health for that."
When he was younger, Jasmin's brother developed autism—something she directly attributes to him getting vaccinated. "My brother developed autism from the Hepatitis B vaccine and the same thing happened to my friend's child," she says. "I've done my own research, watched enough documentaries, and seen enough of the side effects first hand to know vaccines are 100 percent dangerous. No matter what anyone else says."
It's this fear, the fear of harming their child, that the anti-vaccine argument boils down to. The potential harm to other people's children—like the Johnson's six-month-old son—doesn't seem to factor into the mental equation. It seems young parents like Jasmin, who choose not to vaccinate are putting a far greater weight on the risk they believe vaccinations pose to their kids. But the fact some parents think they are trying to protect their children doesn't diminish the fact: Their choice is putting everyone, including their own children, at risk.
Speaking with Jasmin, it's clear no amount or scientific evidence or even tough government policy is going to completely fix this problem. Sure, the government's "No Jab, No Pay" plan has improved vaccination rates. But as the Johnson's story shows, the impact of one unvaccinated child can ripple through an entire town. And if one child infects two or three others, evidence suggests the impacts can be exponential. Unless we can find a way to alleviate the fear of vaccines that is gripping so many young parents, their son's illness won't be the last.
*Names have been changed to protect identity
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