I am a doctor, a specialist in Intensive Care Medicine.
Throughout my career I have looked after many patients with vaccine preventable diseases. I have cared for people with tetanus, pertussis, mumps, influenza, chicken pox, shingles, rotavirus, cervical cancer (secondary to HPV), hepatitis, meningococcal disease, pneumococcal disease, tuberculosis, Japanese encephalitis, and Haemophilus influenzae.
For nearly 10 years I worked in rural and remote Australia, in the Kimberley, Far North Queensland, Alice Springs, and the Top End. I worked in Intensive Care, and also as a retrieval medicine specialist, flying with the RFDS and CareFlight to remote parts of Australia to critically ill and injured people, in order to stabilize them and try and get them back to a hospital.
The work was challenging, funny, interesting, tiring, and a whole lot more. BUT, it was also upsetting and frustrating. I have seen heartbreaking tragedy — physical pain and suffering, social pain and suffering, and harrowing grief, on a scale that has been, at times, incomprehensible. It leaves scars. The best I was able to do professionally in my work in that time was to ‘stick a band aid’ on that pain, and subsequently survive the burn-out that came with it.
As part of my career path, I also worked in a kids Intensive Care (PICU) for 6 months. On my first day at work, I admitted a baby with pertussis (whooping cough). They survived, and were discharged from PICU on the last day that I worked there, 6 months later. They were still dependent on oxygen, and might always be. It was too early to tell if they had also have sustained brain damage.
The second baby I saw in PICU with pertussis did not survive.
It was in PICU, at that time, that I first heard of the anti-vaccination movement.
Since then, I have made a home in Northern NSW, and discovered that it is a ‘headquarters’ of the anti-vaccination movement. By the anti-vaccine movement I refer not the people who have been mislead or those who misunderstand, but the ‘professionals’ of the movement that deliberately misinterpret and tell lies that will lead to death, pain, grief, and suffering. I have also seen that the misinformation about health, preventative medicine and disease has become so all-pervasive in our region it has become part of the cultural narrative.
There is a prayer out there that says “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference” and there is also an expression in safety management that says “something is only as safe as the issue you are prepared to walk past”.
My work in remote Australia led me to realise that those underlying issues were not something that I had the skills to have a significant impact on, and that because of professional and personal burn-out I needed to take a break from even trying. However, after my time in PICU, I decided that the fight to increase vaccination rates was something I would not walk past without at least trying to help.
My approach has been to try and help my community, and those further afield, understand why vaccine preventable diseases are bad, and that vaccines are the safest and most effective way to protect everyone from them.
I have learnt that people make decisions with absolutely the best intentions, but to make an informed decision it is vital to not only understand the data that decision will be based on, but also to have to skills to determine whether the data is credible, accurate and up to date. With that in mind I have written this website to try and translate the science and medicine into language accessible to all, and ensured that the data contained within it is indeed credible, accurate and up to date.
Dr Rachel Heap, FCICM, MRCP, MBBS, BMedSci