Measles anti-vaxxers – and the rest

This is my recent column in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital “Premium” edition every Thursday…

Angry about the measles outbreak? Good. Just be careful where you target it, writes Kyle MacDonald.

Vaccinations. As a parent I quickly learned it was something to avoid discussing with other parents. Sort of like the old maxim “never talk about sex, money or politics in polite company.”

I was never very good at avoiding uncomfortable issues though, call it a professional hazard.

However, like other impolite topics, vaccination provokes strong emotions, and clearly plenty of people are very upset about the fact close to 1000 people are reported as being infected with measles in the Auckland area.

We need to understand these reactions, because we need to talk about vaccinations.

So if you’re angry about the measles outbreak, good. Just be careful where you target that anger: you might be wrong about where the problem lies.

Recent NZ data suggests less than 25 per cent of those not vaccinated are a result of anti-vaccination views.

What about the rest?

Our declining vaccination levels are most marked in Māori and in those living in poverty. Our public health system has been failing to effectively reach, communicate with and make it easy for parents who care, but are struggling with day to day life, to immunise.

Now wait, I hear you say, 25 per cent is still significant. It is, and of course it’s entirely possible these two interact: those struggling to engage with health services are being further discouraged by the misinformation they encounter online about the harms of vaccines.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has also ranked “vaccine hesitancy” one of its top 10 global health threats in 2019. Increasingly, it would seem, this is with good reason.

But at least in New Zealand the more urgent problem is (unsurprisingly) the same as it is for most health services: access. And that is actually easier to solve.

Getting people to change their beliefs is hard, and takes time. Yelling at them, in real life or on Facebook, doesn’t work. It is human nature to hold onto our beliefs more strongly when we feel we are being attacked.

It’s too easy to sit in judgement and refuse to try and understand that for some, keeping a roof over their families heads and food on the table – let alone school fees and clothes – takes all the energy that one – or if you’re lucky two – parents have.

Then try and find time to take time off for doctors appointments (even if they are free, they’re not free if you have to take leave – assuming you can get it).

Now try financially punishing these same families, and see how that helps people engage more actively with the health system.

Dr. Nikki Turner, head of the Immunisation Advisory Centre explained this succinctly when she said that what has changed for many New Zealand families is that we don’t tend to have an ongoing, trusting relationship with a health professional – usually a GP, – like we used to.

Instead, we turn to Doctor Google.

So by all means get angry. But channel that anger into demanding better funding for public health, outreach for those who aren’t actively engaged in the “system” and better information for all.

(Click here to read the article on the NZ Herald…)

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