During the measles outbreak at Christchurch Boys’ High School in 2009, a number of distraught parents called Canterbury Medical Officer of Health Dr Ramon Pink asking why their unimmunised children had been prevented from attending school.
The answer was simple. Unimmunised children can increase the spread of measles by getting it themselves and passing it to others.
If they are kept away from school and other public places during a measles outbreak they and the wider community are safer.
While he accepts that it is a civil liberty to choose not to immunise your child, Dr Pink says that there can be serious consequences from that decision.
Along with the potential to get measles and experience some of the major side effects of the disease, being unimmunised during a measles outbreak can mean lengthy periods away from school for the child and hardship for parents who need to work.
‘One student during the Christchurch Boys’ High School outbreak was off school about nine weeks, causing great distress to his mother, who hadn’t appreciated the downstream effects of not having him immunised,’ Dr Pink says.
‘Living in a developed western nation, there is a false sense of security in thinking that whatever we decide, health services will be there to take care of the consequences. Measles is a serious illness that, no matter what we do, can sometimes have serious complications including pneumonia, ear infections that lead to hearing loss, brain damage and even death,’ he says.
‘Because we haven’t seen the impact of a measles epidemic since the 1990s, when some people were left with lifelong disabilities and others died from it, many of us seem to have forgotten how devastating it can be.’
Dr Pink’s answer to getting all children protected from measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases is to ensure accurate information about the importance of immunisation reaches across generations from grandparents to new parents.
One piece of false information that he thinks still needs to be fully dispelled is a false claim of a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism.
‘This paper was thoroughly discredited but there are a number of older children and teens that remain unimmunised as a result of it.
‘Vaccination is as important to a long and healthy life as exercise and good nutrition,’ he says.
This case study was originally published in Immunisation: Making a choice for your children.