Anti-vaxxers are back in the news – and, my God, it’s relentless.

On Wednesday, the Australian Medical Association was obliged to condemn celebrity chef Pete Evans for spruiking an anti-vax podcaster. Mere days earlier, Taylor Winterstein, the wife of a well-known Australian rugby league player, was exposed promoting $200-a-head workshops in which she informs participants she does not vaccinate her children.

Neither have medical qualifications. MSN reports Winterstein is a “wellness blogger”.

Also this week: a 6-year-old boy in Oregon who cut himself playing on his family farm spent two months in hospital and almost died from a tetanus infection. “When the boy arrived at the emergency department, his muscle spasms were so severe he could not talk or open his mouth and was struggling to breathe,” said the doctor who treated him. The child’s treatment cost near $AU 1m, and the entire episode could have been prevented by a routine vaccination his parents denied him.

A reminder here that the World Health Organization blames the anti-vaxxer movement for a resurgence in deadly outbreaks of entirely preventable illnesses, across the world. Oregon itself is in the midst of a political debate about ending non-medical exemptions from childhood vax jabs.

Understandably – the state is also in the grip of its third month of a measles outbreak, with 70 people diagnosed with the potentially lethal disease since 1 January.

Meanwhile, Australian Shantelle Cartwright – 20 years old, also partnered to a footballer – was herself in the news for sharing anti-vax beliefs with her Instagram followers. She can maintain her child’s health, she says, with a “natural” lifestyle and “wholefoods and probiotics” for “gut health”.

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Tetanus, by the way, is a “natural” spore that exists in soil. It’s just that if those spores enter an open wound, they make a poison in the body, block nerve signals to muscles and provoke spasms strong enough to break bones. Untreated, 1 in 4 people die. “Gut health” doesn’t really come into it.

Of course, facts, science, studies, repeated testing, mass data and dead bodies have never affected zealous belief, in any context. Yet another study proving vaccines do not cause autism was released this month; it involved 650,000 children, took 10 years and explicitly tracked children at pre-existing high risk for autism spectrum disorders. Its conclusions were unambiguous: vaccines do not cause autism. Alas, internet anti-vax mythmaking remains.

The community of anti-vax ideologues is, fortunately, small. The threat they pose to public health isn’t in recruiting converts to their cause, but sowing dangerous level of doubt in non-committed others, who become unsure of vaccine efficacy and procrastinate or ignore vaccination schedules. This “vaccine hesitancy” is why immunisation rates are now dropping.

A recent article in the Conversation stressed the crucial role of friends and family reaching the vaccine hesistant not with a bamboozlement of facts and figures, but by sharing of personal stories.

So here’s mine: I almost died of measles at the age of 17.

As a small child, my mother completed the near full complement of my vaccinations, except the one for measles. We had moved to a new town, and our new GP demurred to jab. The risk was overrated, he insisted, I was such a healthy child. My mother trusted the advice she was given; he was a doctor.

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But at 17 I came home from school one day grey-faced and tired, and a fever took hold. Then sweats. Then eyes weeping with conjunctivitis, a runny nose, cough, aching throat, swollen tissues in my mouth. My fever got so high, I hallucinated. My stomach was rotten, I could only sip Lucozade, then I couldn’t. Then I was vomiting it up from the bed.

Whenever anti-vaxxers make the news, my body bitterly remembers every experience of the measles. The rash burnt my face, my spine, my chest, arms and my feet, as if they’d been spattered with acid. My bed was soaked with sweat. The damp sheets chafed me at every feverish toss and turn.

We had a new doctor, in a new city by then, and she came to the house. My mother only told me years later that the doctor explained I was so weak I’d be unlikely to survive the physical stress of a trip to the hospital. She offered her prayers and left.

My mother stayed by my side. She padded my skin with cool flannels the fever made hot. I broiled and raged, cried and moaned – Mum read George Eliot’s Silas Marner aloud to me in desperation, teasing out its mystery, pleading to unseeable things that my interest in the story might be enough to anchor me in a world from which the red and wet disease was trying to snatch me. She triumphed; at dawn, the fever broke, and I survived.

Roald Dahl was not so lucky. His daughter Olivia did not make it through her desperate measles night and died at seven years old. Dahl became a lifelong vaccination advocate.

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But thanks to one doctor’s bad advice, my mother’s torture wasn’t limited to watching me suffer with measles. Measles causes the body to forget its existing immunities; within weeks, I had chicken pox. Then rubella, mumps, and whooping cough, in quick succession. It affected every life entwined with mine.

My mother was and is a selfless parent; the largest part of my permanent rage for anti-vaxxers is the undeserved guilt she feels – still feels – for my long-ago suffering. We talked about this article, and she cried.

My face has scars from the chicken pox that will never go away.

So, I ask the parents who follow the “wellness bloggers” to oblige me one request. Look at the skin of your kids’ faces now. Imagine the rashes, the sores and the scars.

Look close, and ask yourself; how much pain on the face of the one you love do you reckon you’re ready to live with forever?

Van Badham is a Guardian Australia columnist





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