The Global Reach Of Ignorance

It is a day of great celebration. Red and gold flags flap in the breeze, flowers garland the streets, children clap and sing.

But, this year in Vietnam, something is different.

There aren’t quite so many children in the streets.

The Ministry of Health has advised everybody to “restrict travel to crowded areas” during the Reunification and May Day holidays, because of an outbreak of a “mutated” measles virus – the worst in the country’s history.

“There have been changes in the measles virus, which now can attack the lungs of child patients, causing rapid respiratory failure,” says Dr. Nguyen Thanh Liem, former director of the Central Pediatrics Hospital.

“It is serious enough to be seen as a pandemic.”

The outbreak has killed more than 127 children, with 7000 cases reported, according to the World Health Organisation.

No one knows what caused it. Some blame the government for downplaying the number of deaths, and only offering one jab instead of two.

But other developing countries are seeing a spike in communicable diseases because of an influx of unvaccinated tourists.

In Brazil, public health officials are implementing an emergency plan, with an expected half a million visitors for the World Cup.

“The most frightening impact of vaccine denialism is the simple fact that when we are able to cross borders with ease, and access information from around the globe, it’s much easier to spread both deadly disease and bad ideas,” writes Jill Filipovic in The Guardian.

This is what makes groups like the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network so dangerous. (The AVN was forced to change its name earlier this year, after being labelled “misleading” by Fair Trading.)

It’s a case of #firstworldproblems spreading to the developing world.

“The total or near-complete disappearance of many killer or crippling diseases in rich nations has bred complacency,” according to the World Health Organisation.

In northern Nigeria and Pakistan, polio immunisation campaigns have been dubbed a “foreign conspiracy” by local anti-vaxx campaigners.

“The important thing about complacency is that the number of susceptible people who resist or reject facts and information will accumulate, and the disease will come back, as you’re seeing in the United States with measles and whooping cough, which are terrible diseases,” says immunisation expert Tracey Goodman.

“It’s a tragedy that could be avoided.”

There were 26,000 reported measles cases in Europe, after a decrease in vaccinations.

In Australia, low immunisation rates in some pockets are blamed for the deaths of infants from whooping cough.
Like little Kailis Smith.

Three years ago, Roslynd and Jay Smith lost their 10-week-old baby to pertussis.

Now, they’re worried for nine-week-old baby Kayden, despite moving from the anti-vaccination hub of the NSW northern rivers to Townsville in central Queensland.

Mrs. Smith is urging all new parents to have whooping cough boosters.

Meanwhile, Queensland’s Health Minister wants to stop the so-called ‘consciencious objectors’ from refusing vaccinations. (This system allows them to receive the same financial benefits as parents who do immunise.)

I wonder whether those who refuse vaccination have seen the effects of communicable diseases in the developing world, where pneumonia, whooping cough and measles are among the primary killers.

In Vietnam, the vaccination rate remains under 50 per cent in 11 provinces; nowhere near herd immunity.

The government is now offering free measles jabs to children aged two to 10, and a booster for those who’ve only had one shot.

But it could be too little too late.

And so, I sit, watching the colourful celebrations in Ho Chi Minh City and wonder how many of these children will suffer from a deadly combination of cover-up, misinformation, and ignorance.

For World Immunisation Week, the WHO has developed a new app that contains information on vaccines, the diseases they prevent, and the schedule of the country. Immunisation prevents an estimated two to three million deaths per year, yet one in five children misses out.