Byron Bay: Where anti-vax ideas are contagious
The baby came into the hospital bleeding from the mouth and nose.
He was only four weeks old, but he showed all the hallmarks of a Vitamin K deficiency. It is a rare but real complication: a deficiency in the fat-soluble vitamin needed for efficient blood clotting can lead to fatal haemorrhaging.
It is the reason all babies are given a Vitamin K shot at birth, but sometimes parents refuse. This little boy's parents refused the shot.
Lismore paediatrician Dr Chris Ingall ran tests on the baby. The child was indeed deficient but it was too late to save the boy.
"One of the hardest things a paediatrician ever has to do is tell a patient their baby is going to die and in this case, the mother had refused the Vitamin K injection for her newborn just a few weeks prior," Dr Ingall says.
"She said it can't be Vitamin K deficiency, and I said I'm sorry but the tests show the baby is deficient," Dr Ingall says. It was later confirmed by the coroner.
What devastated both the doctor and mother, is that the mother had been advised against the Vitamin K shot by community health nurses in Byron Bay.
Dr Ingall wanted a coronial inquiry because he thought the medical staff who had given the advice should have be charged with manslaughter.
"There should have been a coronial inquiry, that baby died of a Vitamin K deficiency," he said.
What made the case worse was that the antenatal group was funded by NSW Health and it had been taken over by anti-vaccination zealots who included Vitamin K in their fertile conspiracies about Big Pharma out to harm children in pursuit of a buck.
That was seven years ago, and authorities removed the rogue midwives who no longer live in the area, but the anti-vaccination movement in the Byron Shire has become embedded in the community. Peer pressure, especially among young mothers, not to vaccinate has led to some mothers pretending they didn't vaccinate their kids just to fit in.
It's the birthplace of the anti-vaccine movement. The Australian Vaccination Network was set up there in Bangalow in the 1990s.
The shire now has the lowest immunisation rates in Australia. According to the latest figures, only half of all five-year-olds are vaccinated in Mullumbimby and only 60 per cent are in nearby Byron Bay.
Since the Aquarius festival in the 1970s, the shire has embraced its counter-culture image and has become a mecca for alternative, nature-loving types who not only distrust mainstream everything, but embrace the burgeoning "Big Nature" industry that has set up around them to cater to every alternative whim.
High profile anti-vaccination speakers rotate through the shire regularly. This Thursday, David "Avocado" Wolfe will 'party with the tribe' at Jing Organics. Although he has copped flak on his tour around Australia for his anti-vaccine stance, he will be welcomed with open arms in the Byron shire. The owner of Jing Organics, Adam Kingsley, told the Sunday Telegraph he "hoped" Wolfe would spread his anti-vaccine message because he too was proudly antivaccine. The event is sold out.
The sponsor of the whole Wolfe tour - organic herb and supplement company Superfeast - is owned by Byron Shire local Mason Taylor. He too has criticized vaccination.
Vaxxed, the conspiracy film by struck off doctor Andrew Wakefield, was also met with an enthusiastic full house in December a the Mullumbimby Civic Hall. The concocted brew of untruths, which ignores the fact the children with autism at the centre of the 'conspiracy' were vaccinated after their autism diagnosis, was digested unquestioned.
The alternative health industry is, according to local GP Dr Sue Page, an orgy of confirmation bias. Naturopaths, chiropractors, doulas, home birth groups, unregistered mid-wives, organic health food shops, antenatal yoga classes and breast feeding groups all feed off and into each other, and make money out of reinforcing their belief that vaccination is a bad thing, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
"In that alternative lifestyle set you are sold homeopathic products or organic food and any small business is trying to build a market, so you want return customers and any of their websites which tell you about healthy lifestyles will also have ads down the side that reinforce links to each other's businesses. They don't go and see a doctor because he or she is in the pocket of the pharmaceutical companies, they go see a naturopath," Dr Page said.
The Byron shire has the lowest vaccination rate in Australia with one in two kids in Mullumbimby not vaccinated.
That affects all of us, because the 2008-2012 whooping cough epidemic started in the shire due to the low rates. Northern NSW notifications were four times the state average.
Two babies who were too young to be vaccinated themselves died as a result: four-week-old Dana McCaffery in 2008 and Kailis Smith in April 2011 at nine weeks of age. The epidemic spread throughout Australia.
"Many of the naturopaths here that specialise in children are anti-vax," says Peter Keil, a naturopath himself and somewhat of an anomaly in the shire because he vaccinates his kids.
"If you study alternative therapies, you tend to get people who mistrust science," he says.
"They reinforce each other," says Dr Ingall.
"And if you say a lie enough, it becomes the truth."
The Mullumbimby Home Birth group run by home birth doula Sita Tara and 'certified health coach' Annalee Atia, have twice hosted Stephanie Messenger to give talks to new mums about vaccination in the past 18 months.
Ms Messenger is a professional anti-vaccine campaigner who wrote about the 'health benefits' of measles in her book 'Melanie's Marvellous Measles'.
Ms Messenger also claims that vaccines killed her baby son in 1977 despite doctors telling her he had the rare and fatal genetic disorder Alexanders Disease.
One of her talks at a Mullumbimby council hall promised on the group's Facebook page to "present evidence that the government mantra that vaccines are safe and effective is nothing more than propaganda. You will go home with handouts on where to dig deeper for the real answers to do with vaccination".
Ms Messenger refused to comment when approached by the Sunday Telegraph after the meeting.
Sita Tara, a mother of six home-birthed and unvaccinated children was more frank.
"I can speak for those of us who choose not to vaccinate, we choose a healthy lifestyle and focus on maintaining healthy lifestyle of body and spirit rather than vaccination. Most of the people (at the meeting) had already chosen not to vaccinate," Ms Tara says.
"I don't think it's necessary to put poisons into my children's bodies. If you have a healthy lifestyle, you can get over these infections," she says.
Both Sita Tara and Annalee Atia also run Mama Mini workshops at the Red Tent yoga group in Byron Bay which is "specifically created to support mothers transitioning into parenthood". Ms Atia runs the Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond Radio show on the local radio Bay FM.
"As they are new mothers... it is a market group that is really easily influenced," Dr Page says.
A dismayed Alison Gaylard watched on from across the street as around 20 new mothers attended the Messenger talk at the home birth group.
"I was horrified; there were all these new mothers and babies being fed misinformation and lies."
Gaylard says the peer pressure not to vaccinate in these parts is intense and something she experienced first-hand as a new mum.
"I can remember at one mum and bub group, it was about nappy options and it was run by the local baby shop and the topic got around to vaccination. My friend and I said 'well why wouldn't you vaccinate?' and these people were dumbfounded. I was shunned by some people and for a long time I didn't fit in anywhere," she says.
When both her daughters caught whooping cough during the 2012 epidemic (which was later sourced to the low vaccination rates in the Shire), she helped form the Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters to try and challenge the loud voices of the anti-vax movement. But it is an uphill battle.
Heidi Robertson, a mother of two who also volunteers, says the group tries to quietly work the backwaters in a non-confrontational way. As their charter suggests, they support those who decide to vaccinate.
"We are trying to encourage people not to be fearful, to speak up in favour of vaccination and turn the tide on what has become a social norm around here," Robertson says.
Toni McCaffery, Dana's mother, says that Pauline Hanson's comments last week mean that the Health Department can never be complacent, especially in the Byron Shire.
"This week someone in office has been making irresponsible statements and it means the health department needs to keep educating parents to counter all the misinformation.
People here (in the Byron shire) are assaulted by misinformation, on the internet, on the street and they are placing children at risk.
There is no need for any family to suffer the way we have. We now have a free booster for pregnant women and if I had that I'd be still be holding Dana, not wondering what she looks like now. To think there are groups out there trying to convince women not to have it is frightening," McCaffery says.
But who will counteract the misinformation in this pocket of rebellion, especially when new parents are being deliberately targeted? So far, it's been left up to Gaylard and her friends at the NRVS who give their time for free.
"The plethora of misinformation out there is alarming. As a local grass roots, unfunded group with no financial gain to be had, we are trying to address this but there is only so much we can do through our website, Facebook page and face-to-face talking, to help provide credible information," Gaylard says.
"We would welcome the relevant authorities and government to take this matter in hand. We try our best but we depend on the authorities to prevent the spread of misinformation and lies that perpetuate locally. We feel this is an area that is being dealt with inadequately, as evidenced by this talk occurring," she said.
"The babies need an equal voice," adds Dr Ingall. "Ultimately what the parents do can harm the baby, if their belief system is skewed to the point where baby is at risk, the parents are mortified when something goes wrong. These are good people, but they are misinformed."