Reporter: Ellen Fanning
Producers: Sandra Cleary, Hannah Boocock
They were the original superbugs - mumps, measles, polio and rubella.
Thanks to modern immunisation, we don't see these diseases much any more, and most of us have no first-hand knowledge of how dangerous they can be.
Maybe that's why so many parents are questioning whether vaccination is the right choice for their children.
Once they tap into the bottomless pit of misinformation swirling around the internet, fears are fuelled, minds are made up and they may just say no to the needle.
In our story you'll meet some of the self-appointed experts behind the anti-vaccine campaign, and some grieving parents who couldn't disagree with them more.
Jay and Roslynd Smith are supporting the Preston James Fund to raise money for a new life support machine.
If you would like to help, visit www.prestonjames.com
For more information about immunisation in Australia, visit www.ncirs.edu.au
For more information on how to protect your newborn baby from whooping cough, visit www.chainofprotection.org and www.health.nsw.gov.au
ELLEN FANNING: Perfect big handsome man. Think his mummy was a bit mad for him.
ROSLYND: I think so.
ELLEN FANNING: This was baby Kailis Smith, just 5 weeks old. He’d just started to smile, and his parents were besotted. They still can’t comprehend looking at this video that he was dying before their eyes – of whooping cough. So this is the most important bit. That’s what parents should be looking for, parents of newborns. Is that what you’re saying? Just that little tiny cough.
ROSLYND: You wouldn’t think anything of it.
ELLEN FANNING: Jay and Roslynd want people to know what happened to their son Kailis. He was too young to be fully immunised leaving him vulnerable to the sort of disease which plagued our grandparents and is still among us.
ROSLYND: He was given a death sentence. Someone so young was given a death sentence.
ELLEN FANNING: But try telling that to the anti-vaccine lobbyists and this is what happens…
VIERA: I am walking out of this, because this is a farce. But how about you put me in touch with those parents? I will ask them relevant questions to establish the whole medical history of these children and then we shall see what they really died of.
ELLEN FANNING: At 76, Dr Viera Scheibner is the voice of authority in the anti-vaccine movement in Australia and around the world. And so how many documents are in this room?
VIERA: Well, it is more than 100,000 pages of medical papers.
ELLEN FANNING: For 26 years now she’s been writing prolifically about the dangers of vaccines.
VIERA: It’s a national treasure. Based on my extensive research of orthodox medical literature, I am totally against any vaccination.
ELLEN FANNING: Have you got anything good to say about vaccines?
VIERA: No, because the immunity is achieved by going through the natural infectious diseases of childhood, such as measles, whooping cough, mumps and rubella.
ELLEN FANNING: So vaccines are dangerous and diseases are good?
ELLEN FANNING: Kailis was born in February this year, a little brother for 2-year-old Shayla. He only died 7 weeks ago and his parents are still reeling from how quickly whooping cough claimed his life and how little doctors could do about it. On Tuesday, he’s sent home with a cold, and on Friday he’s on life support.
ROSLYND: Yeah, shocking. Every mother’s worst nightmare, I think.
JAY: They had 15, 20 doctors around him just screaming ‘re-sus’ and it was all on.
ROSLYND: I think people are thinking this is a normal cold. Like a bad cold. But it’s not. It’s a disease, you know. Look up the word ‘disease’ in the dictionary I think.
ELLEN FANNING: It’s not so much the dictionary you need to consult but the history books. Vaccines have virtually wiped out polio, measles and mumps in Australia. They’re so rare, today’s doctors would struggle to diagnose them. So if a little kid turned up with measles in that waiting room out there, it’s a surprise.
PROFESSOR PETER MCINTYRE: That’s right. It’s something a lot of people haven’t seen.
ELLEN FANNING: And yet, half a century on, Professor Peter McIntyre from the Children’s Hospital at Westmead still has to argue the benefits of parents giving their kids the jab.
PROFESSOR PETER MCINTYRE: We’re not immunising to protect children against trivial diseases, we’re immunising them to protect them against diseases which can have very serious impacts and if we stop immunising they can very quickly come back.
ELLEN FANNING: What are the risks if a parent chooses not to vaccinate a child?
PROFESSOR PETER MCINTYRE: As a parent, deciding not to immunise your child from the child’s point of view is you playing Russian roulette with their life.
ELLEN FANNING: Sydney mum Meredith Collins has heard all those dire warnings about the importance of vaccinations, but she’s not convinced. Her eldest son had an adverse reaction to his first needles and she hasn’t been back with the other two. Wouldn’t you rather err on the side of safety though?
MEREDITH: I’m not willing to put my children or their health at risk with immunisations that I don’t have any real evidence to say that they definitely work when there are also inherent risks in immunisation.
ELLEN FANNING: While Meredith is not a member of any anti-vaccine networks, it’s striking that their ideas have penetrated all the way through to her in suburban Australia.
MEREDITH: I was concerned about the base of mercury and formaldehyde in immunisations.
ELLEN FANNING: You’re worried about mercury in these injections but mainstream medical research says there’s no risk from that mercury. There’s more mercury in a tuna sandwich.
MEREDITH: Depending on who you’re talking to, I mean if it’s a pharmaceutical company that’s actually issuing the research just maybe they’re releasing particular information to market that suits their purposes. I don’t know.
ELLEN FANNING: So when you look at the mainstream medical research that says things like this, you’re worried there is a conspiracy?
MEREDITH: I’m not worried at all. I’m asking you the question who funded that research? That’s all I’m asking.
VIERA: Initially they took the kidneys of wild monkeys and minced them.
ELLEN FANNING: Working alongside Dr Viera Scheibner is her friend Bronwyn Hancock. With a background in IT, Bronwyn’s even set up a website to promote Dr Scheibner’s ideas alongside her own, lengthy exposes on the dangers of modern medicine. You write here that the body only catches a disease if it needs to. So all those polio and measles epidemics, Bronwyn, the kids, their bodies wanted to catch those diseases, did they?
BRONWYN: There are benefits of diseases. Now I say that with qualification, because obviously diseases have to be well managed and going through a disease is like us getting exercise. This is one of the reasons why it’s good to get rubella as soon as possible, so that you have immunity to it. And um…
ELLEN FANNING: But what about the risk of rubella to pregnant women who can have babies suffering terrible birth defects?
VIERA: Don’t answer things that you don’t know enough about, OK – don’t answer them. You were drowning. So let’s call a spade a spade.
ELLEN FANNING: Why would she be drowning?
VIERA: Because she hasn’t got the extent of knowledge that I have.
ELLEN FANNING: If she hasn’t got the extensive knowledge, why on earth is she writing these articles on the website?
VIERA: Maybe you have a point then, yes. That’s right. Maybe you have a point there, okay.
ELLEN FANNING: So just for clarity, you’re not a medical doctor?
VIERA: I’m not a medical doctor, no. But I am a doctor of natural sciences.
ELLEN FANNING: Am I right in thinking that in fact your expertise is in studying microfossils, little fossils?
VIERA: My expertise is in many areas. One of them was microscopic fossils
ELLEN FANNING: But you have actually, just for the record, no formal medical training?
VIERA: I wouldn’t say that, because I did a course of nursing when I was young.
ELLEN FANNING: But do you believe you know more than most doctors?
VIERA: Yes, I believe I know more than most doctors.
ELLEN FANNING: Viera’s adamant that her qualifications were earned in this very room - during the quarter of a century she spent diligently analysing medical journals. For instance, in 1998, an explosive report from the British Dr Andrew Wakefield claimed there was a link between autism and the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and Viera, like many others, remains convinced.
VIERA: Vaccination of any kind causes autism.
ELLEN FANNING: So only children who are vaccinated get autism?
VIERA: That’s right, yes.
ELLEN FANNING: That’s a heck of a story.
VIERA: It is a heck of a story, yes.
ELLEN FANNING: And that’s just what it was – a story. Fiction, not fact. Last year, Dr Wakefield was struck off the medical register for falsifying his research. Not that Viera has got the message.
PROFESSOR PETER MCINTYRE: It was fraud. And yet despite that flimsy evidence, once something gets out and there are people looking for answers, particularly with something nasty like autism, it’ll just keep going.
ELLEN FANNING: Should the medical community be more candid about the risks of vaccines – in the past and today – to overcome anxiety in the community about giving kids the jab?
PROFESSOR PETER MCINTYRE: Absolutely. And believe me, if we were concerned about something not working or particularly something that was actually causing harm, we’d be the first to put up our hands and say ‘let’s stop it’.
ELLEN FANNING: Such concerns about vaccines can unsettle a whole community. Here in parts of northern NSW, as many as 1 in 3 children is not immunised – and as the immunisation rates went down, the rates of disease here went up and that’s particularly dangerous for any baby under 6 months old as they are too young to be fully vaccinated. And so it was here, in 2009, that little Dana McCaffery was born, into the middle of a whooping cough epidemic. By the time the doctors worked out she was infected, it was too late.
TONI: And I have to live every day knowing that because I took Dana out as a newborn, someone breathed on her and she’s dead.
ELLEN FANNING: Now David and Toni McCaffery are taking no chances with their fourth child Sarah. She won’t leave the house until she’s fully immunised. David’s even off work as a teacher because 1 in 5 children at his school has tested positive to whooping cough. Are you comfortable with me being this close to Sarah without a mask? I am because you’ve had the whopping cough booster whereas Richard hasn’t had the booster yet.
ELLEN FANNING: Our cameraman. The whooping cough
DAVID: We lost a child to whooping cough and we don't want to lose her.
TONI: Everyone’s focusing on the deaths, what about the children that survive. It is a horrible disease. What it does it breaks ribs, brain damage, scars their lungs…their lungs collapse, perforated lungs, pneumonia every year they have a cold for the rest of their life, chronic asthma. This is what whooping cough does.
VIERA: And how do you know they died from whooping cough? Because they may not have died from whooping cough.
ELLEN FANNING: These children went to hospital and the doctors there diagnosed them with having whooping cough. I don’t think there’s any doubt about that.
VIERA: But if the child was given Hepatitis B at birth, it certainly suppressed its immune system and made it very susceptible to catching whooping cough from people around.
ELLEN FANNING: They’re dead because their parents immunised them at birth against Hepatitis B?
VIERA: That’s right, absolutely. Because vaccines are the single - any vaccines are the single biggest cause of infant death. Those mothers have no knowledge to judge the case. They only listen to what doctors tell them. And of course the doctors are only too happy to start blaming the disease instead of their vaccines.
ELLEN FANNING: Can I put it to you both that maybe not from malicious intent, that you two are part of a conspiracy, a conspiracy to cover up the plain fact infants die an agonising death from whooping cough, that you’re . . .
VIERA: Absolutely not and I am walking out of this, because this is a farce. But how about you put me in touch with those parents? I will ask them relevant questions to establish the whole medical history of these children, and then we shall see what they really died of. I don’t accept any accusations from you or anybody else about me doing something wrong because I am not doing anything wrong.
ELLEN FANNING: People have said they want proof of how your baby died.
TONI: I watched my daughter over five days die the most agonising death and I don't want any other parent to go through that.
ELLEN FANNING: And what do you say to them about proof?
TONI: My proof’s in a cemetery.
ELLEN FANNING: For the Smiths, their grief is still raw. They have learned the hardest way, what our grandparents and great-grandparents knew - that childhood diseases can kill and there’s still no cure, only prevention.
ROSLYND: To see your child laying there from being perfectly healthy just a little bit of a cold to on full life support, knowing that he probably won’t live, you won’t get to touch him. You won’t get to hear his cry, you know to smell him, to hear your baby cry, you like, it’s a beautiful thing. I just wish I could hear him cry again.