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Dr Lance O'Sullivan - Champion of evidence-based healthcare

24 May 2017 2:00 PM | William Levack (Administrator)

I read today about Dr Lance O'Sullivan's proactive steps to interrupt a screening of anti-vaccine documentary Vaxxed in Kaitaia this week in order to tell organisers that they are contributing to the deaths of children.  Dr O'Sullivan (2014 New Zealander of the Year) has invested considerable time, effort, and creativity into addressing health disparities in the rural north. The video of his plea for reason around vaccination is well worth watching. While vaccination is not directly related to rehabilitation (other than in terms of preventing long term chronic health conditions and disability), I want to highlight Dr O'Sullivan's actions, which I fully support.  This is a terribly important issue for New Zealand, as it is around the world.  To be clear: vaccines prevent deaths and do not cause autism. Vaxxed is a dangerous, misleading, and potentially harmful movie.

To take just one vaccine: Prior 1980, BEFORE a vaccine for measles was first introduced, measles was killing an estimated 2.6 million people every year - mostly babies and small children.  Today, worldwide, measles results in 130,000 deaths each year.  According to the World Health Organization:"During 2000-2015, measles vaccination prevented an estimated 20.3 million deaths." However, due to some misinformed (and maybe unscrupulous) individuals, there has been a rise in the incorrect belief that measles wasn't all that bad, that vaccines are not needed, and that vaccines do more harm than good. All these beliefs are incorrect.

Movies like Vaxxed, and advocates for them, do incredible amounts of harm. One example of this has been the recent, and highly predictable, outbreak of measles among Somali immigrants in Minnesota - the biggest outbreak in the USA in decades. This group of immigrants was specifically targeted by anti-vaccination proponents, who directly contributed to a plunge in vaccinations rates in this population from 92% in 2004 to 42% in 2015.  As of this month, at least 50 individuals had been affected in this latest outbreak, many of whom were hospitalised.   It is not inconceivable, if we were to let our guard down, that this kind of outbreak could happen in New Zealand. The people who would suffer most would be the most vulnerable - children and babies; people with poorest access to healthcare services.

As such, Dr O'Sullivan is absolutely correct to take such strong action against the spread of misinformation about vaccines.  We should all do more to follow his lead in fighting for a health-literate public and for evidenced-based healthcare services in our country.

William Levack is an Associate Professor of Rehabilitation at the Rehabilitation Teaching & Research Unit, University of Otago, Wellington, New Zealand. Twitter: @DrLevack

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