Comment

The world without vaccines was a cruel place

The terrible plagues that killed our children have been defeated in the West. But the price we pay to stop their return is vigilant vaccination.

When I was in primary school in the 1940s, we all accepted the fact that following the autumn holiday one of the 40 children in the class would not return to school, because they had either died or were paralysed after contracting polio. Those who survived usually ended up in the iron lung, a monstrosity most people nowadays would never have seen.

When I started university they were just introducing the oral vaccination for polio. Very rapidly the number of cases dropped off. Now we can say that polio in the Western world is a thing of the past. Not however, in less developed countries. Somebody, some time, is going to bring the virus back to our country.

In the early 1960s, the German measles (rubella) vaccination had just been put on the market. The illness itself was not serious, but if a pregnant woman came in contact with the virus, her baby was at a high risk of fetal abnormalities. During my early days as a doctor in Switzerland and then in Sydney at the children's hospital in Camperdown, I saw children with the after-effects of mother having had the rubella virus. The main problems were babies with cataracts or small heads, deafness and occasional heart defects. After introducing the vaccination we, as doctors, hardly ever saw those terrible defects.

During my year at the children's hospital some of my time was spent looking after children in the infectious ward. I saw complications of measles: terrible rashes, life-threatening pneumonias, encephalitis. Some died, but thank goodness, most recovered. In the ward for babies less than a year old, I saw a few babies admitted with whooping cough, a truly frightening experience. The poor baby gets a coughing spasm and just can't stop to take a breath. They go blue and are in a truly critical situation. In 1971, I saw a child with diphtheria, thank goodness never again.

In the following years as a country GP, far fewer complications from those viral illnessess were observed, only rare cases of mumps or mild measles. Following the introduction of the haemophilus influenza vaccination, the number of children with meningitis was reduced, and there were fewer cases of croup. Before this vaccination was introduced, we had the "trachi-bell" (tracheotomy bell) at the hospital in Camperdown. When that bell rang, everybody knew a child was suffocating. The emergency team would rush to the ward and life-saving measures had to be introduced to try to save the child; a very frightening event. I have not seen a case like this since the early 1970s.

From my point of view, the West had beaten those terrible plagues. In 1980, working with the Red Cross on the Thai-Cambodian border and in 1988-1989 in Cambodia itself, I was again confronted by children with severe measles, terrible purulent ear infections and deafness. Most of the children there had never been vaccinated. I came to realise how lucky we are in the West not to have those terrible illnesses.

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I am aware of the fear parents have, that their child might suffer severe side-effects from vaccinations. I personally know one of the professors in London who was researching the link between vaccinations and autism. A colleague of his (Dr A.J. Wakefield) then published the very damning article on the connection between them. I believe we can now all say no serious scientific research has established any connection between vaccinations and autism. Science is only as good as what we know at the time. I am now in my 70s. When I look back at all the terrible illnesses we had in the past and consider how we are now free of them, medical science has done a great job.

Two years ago at a conference in Switzerland, we were told about the case of a young boy dying in Switzerland from measles. Swiss people are much more hesitant to vaccinate their children; therefore they are having more serious cases of these viral illnesses, which we thank goodness don't see in Australia. If we let our guard down, how long will it be before we again see all those illnesses?

Many parents and grandparents, as well as young doctors, have never seen those terrible viral illnesses and perhaps they wonder why we should be worried about them.

Dr Donald Bourquin is a NSW GP.

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