As the ones considered most informed about healthcare matters, healthcare providers are responsible for dispensing medical advice that is based on the best evidence available.

Consequently, the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia has taken a tough position on nurses and midwives who ignore scientific evidence by promoting anti-vaccination to patients and the public on social media. They have also urged members of the public to report nurses or midwives promoting anti-vaccination.

A critical obligation to provide the best available evidence

“The board will consider whether the nurse or midwife has breached their professional obligations and will treat these matters seriously,” the statement said. Promoting false, misleading or deceptive information is an offence under Australian law and is prosecutable by the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.

If the nurse or midwife is deemed to have breached their professional obligation to promote scientifically backed health advice, they could face having their ability to practise medicine restricted. Serious cases will be referred to an industry tribunal, where harsher penalties such as having their registration suspended or cancelled could apply.

According to Dr Hannah Dahlen, a professor of midwifery at the University of Western Sydney and the spokeswoman for the Australian College of Midwives, “Midwives and nurses are highly regarded and trusted members of society and people take their advice very seriously.”

“I agree that they have a very serious obligation to provide the best available evidence, and it is of course concerning that some are taking to social media in order to express a position not backed by science.”

At the same time, there is the concern that the crackdown may only serve to reinforce and encourage people with anti-vaccination views to hide them. “The worry is the confirmation bias that can occur, because people might say: ‘There you go, this is proof that you can’t even have an alternative opinion.’ It might in fact just give people more fuel for their belief systems,” said Dr. Dahlen.

Anti-vaccination attitudes are a very big concern

Governmental efforts to combat anti-vaccination views are extensive and ongoing. The position statement from the industry follows the launch of a comprehensive collaborative campaign involving the Australian Medical Association (AMA), the health minister, Sussan Ley, and the Australian Academy of Science to promote the evidence for and benefits of immunisation.

This campaign included the release of a booklet containing the latest scientific information on vaccination. It is launched by Professor Peter Doherty, winner of the 1996 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine.

Dr Michael Gannon, the AMA’s president said the booklet was “the perfect response to the lies, misinformation and fear that is peddled by the anti-vaccination movement”.

“Immunisation saves lives,” he said. “That is an undeniable fact.”

Despite this, there still remain pockets in the community, including in the Gold Coast, western Sydney and the north coast of NSW, with lower than average immunisation rates. Evidently, anti-vaccination attitudes and fears are prevalent and persistent.

Vaccination still a debated topic in Malaysia

This is a global problem, one that includes places closer to home, like Malaysia. It is so prevalent that the government felt the need to step in, making vaccinations compulsory for all Malaysian students, and making it possible to take legal action against parents who refuse to have their children vaccinated.

According to the World Health Organisation, vaccinations prevent up to three million deaths every year from diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and measles. Arguably, anti-vaccination attitudes are a public health concern, because herd immunity is lowered, that is, the opportunity for an outbreak drastically rises because too few people in the community have the immunity.

Malaysian Health director-general Datuk Dr Noor Hisham Abdullah has said the number of parents with children aged below two who refused vaccination has increased from 470 cases in 2013 to 1,292 cases last year, adding that the numbers should be more because the statistics collected did not include private health clinics.

Clearly, education is necessary. However, it may not be enough on its own, as we can see from the Australian case. Healthcare providers need to be aware of the weight of their advice, and thus, take all medical evidence into consideration before dispensing advice, especially on an issue as important as immunisations. MIMS

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