World Immunisation Week 2016: diary of a researcher and advocate


Last week was World Immunisation Week, celebrating the achievements of vaccines. But for a handful of people – advocates, policy makers, immunisation managers, health professionals, and researchers who live and breathe immunisation every day of the year – every week is Immunisation Week

My week was a snapshot of immunisation research, programs and controversies so I thought I would take you through it.

Monday was a public holiday but I checked out the new campaign from Victoria. It is aimed at reminding the public about the benefits of immunisation for individuals and the community. Here are Caitlin and Liam talking about their son who cannot be immunised and relies on the immunisation of those around him to help protect him from vaccine-preventable diseases.

Tuesday started with a 5.30am teleconference with people in the US. A small group of us have been talking for over a year about an International Collaboration on Vaccine Acceptance. We want to bring together a multidisciplinary group of researchers and program managers to help improve the evidence base on addressing vaccine hesitancy and refusal. Each fortnight, we share ideas about our aims, how we can move this forward and find some funding. Despite the global attention on vaccine hesitancy, finding tangible support for research and collaborations remains difficult.

Later that day I met with staff at NSW Health to update them on our SARAH project. SARAH stands for Support And Resources to Assist Hesitant parents with vaccination. It is a system to be embedded in primary care that aims to optimise communication and the use of tailored resources during vaccine discussions. Last month we conducted 11 focus groups with parents who looked at the draft resources and told us what else they want in vaccination conversations and information. We are now getting feedback from program managers on the acceptability of the planned package. Later this year we will return to GPs and nurses to road test our refined package.

Then I was off to Tamworth to spend Wednesday morning with Amy Creighton, who is finalising her Master of Philosophy thesis. Amy is a Gomeroi Murri woman whose project is called “Gaba Binggi (Good Needles): Developing an understanding of how two First Nations communities see and experience immunisation during pregnancy”.  She has been undertaking this research with support from Hunter New England Population Health and the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Immunisation of Under-Studied and Special Risk Population Groups. It has been a privilege to work with Amy and her other supervisor Peter Massey throughout this project. I have learnt from Amy what it means to practice and reflect cultural respect in research and health services – lifelong learning.

Waiting to catch the plane back to Sydney, I began thinking about an upcoming interview on ABC Classic FM’s Midday program. I will get to choose five musical items and we will intersperse them with discussion about my work and life. Doing media interviews is like jumping out of a plane – exhilarating and terrifying all at once. For this program (to be broadcast on Wednesday (4 May) at 12noon) I am enjoying the prospect of sharing some favourite musicians, including my brother, Adrian Brand who is a professional tenor living in Paris.

On Thursday I met with another student who, like Amy, is researching community views and practices around vaccination. This time it’s with people who actively reject childhood vaccination. Catherine Helps is interviewing parents in the Byron Shire of NSW. Despite so much public commentary on vaccine rejectors, there is very little research on this topic, with the last major set of studies done in Australia in the 1990s. We need to get beyond the stereotypes and better understand this phenomenon if we are to approach it in a constructive way.

Later on I update a workshop I will run with postgrads at the University of Sydney. The workshop asks students to break into groups representing different community and professional perspectives on vaccination. They are given an evolving scenario, starting in 2013 with a report of low immunisation rates in Australia. As the scenario unfolds they get more information. This enables the students to experience the complexities of vaccination policy decision making.

On Friday morning our CRE group met to do further planning on a round table with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Controlled Health Services sector. We revisited the issues raised at the first round table four years ago and looked at what we have learnt and where to next in supporting immunisation with First Nations peoples.

Then I had a TV interview lined up with Prime Seven News*. I had been asked to comment on immunisation rates in different regions. As with most TV interviews, the ratio of preparation and organisation to air time is about 4000 to 1 and sometimes the interview is not played at all. You need to be extremely succinct and be at peace with over-simplifying everything.  Otherwise your important points will end up on the proverbial cutting room floor. So I plan to convey the following simple messages:

  • Vaccination helps protect your kids and the wider community.
  • Parents should make every effort to vaccinate their kids on time.
  • Health professionals need support to deliver vaccines to kids.
  • Governments need to make vaccines free, easy to get.
  • Everyone has a responsibility to make sure they are up to date with their vaccinations. Ask your doctor about whether you need a booster. And as the flu season approaches, check to see whether you are eligible for a free flu vaccine and have it soon.

I thought I might also draw on the findings of a paper we published last week that showed that vaccine objection rates have not increased markedly in Australia. However, they continue to make a significant contribution to under-vaccination in Australia.

Saturday afternoon saw the end of my Immunisation Week with a two hour workshop on vaccination policy dilemmas with students undertaking a Master of Health Policy at the University of Sydney. 

*Postscript: racing back to the university for my interview, I got a text saying that it had been postponed. It is not unusual for media stories to be cancelled or not used due to competing stories or other circumstances. It’s one of the realities of working with the media.