Games with a Dual Purpose
The Daily Telegraph – 02-Sep-1999
Tina Burchill meets a group of parents with a diy approach to childhood immunisation
Jonathan Thomas, 10, has just had mumps. Nothing unusual in that – except that he and his brother Samuel, nine, and sister Sara, three, were deliberately exposed to the disease by their father.
In his view, the family outing to visit a four-year-old in the full throes of a classic attack – with swollen neck and glands, fatigue, fever and sore throat – was entirely successful.
After spending an afternoon playing with Rachel Scase and drinking from the same cup, the three Thomas children not only contracted mumps, but also took home the infection to their two other siblings, who had been unable to join the group. Both families belong to a contact network of parents who live by a doctrine of "natural health". While the majority of parents in Britain would protect their children from such childhood diseases as measles, mumps, German measles and chicken pox, the families in the network believe that exposure to these illnesses will help their children in later life.
Richard Thomas, an osteopath, explains: "It is a small amount of suffering for the long-term good of the individual. The child will come out of it stronger. We regard childhood diseases as priming the immune system for adult life and helping to protect against other diseases, such as heart disease and cancer."
There are 200 families in the family's network and many more in similar groups around the country. Most members are well-educated professional people who are against vaccinations and believe in a healthy, wholefood diet for their children. Many also rely on alternative practitioners rather than GPs.
The majority of those in traditional medicine would regard "disease networking" as being irresponsible with children's health. Indeed, only last week, the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) in Oxford published a bulletin warning that Britain is on the brink of a measles epidemic, thanks to scaremongering over the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, linking it with autism. However, not all medical opinion is against the networkers.
Dr Peter Mansfield, who runs a holistic health advice centre, says that exposing children to diseases was commonplace 50 years ago. "My doctor in London used to help organise parties at the homes of infected children. He saw it as an extension of his normal practice. These children are from good families and are well-nourished. The diseases will be mild. There is a lot of research suggesting that having these illnesses improves the immune system and general resilience to all kinds of things." Where the network faces most controversy is over the inclusion of measles on its list. But members believe that only unhealthy children are at risk of complications. Paediatrician Dr Harvey Marcovitch, who edits the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood, disagrees. "It is irresponsible. While the vast majority who get measles will have an unpleasant illness with no after-effects, a tiny number of children will suffer brain damage – or even die."
Vaccines do not provide 100 per cent protection against infection, but measles caught by vaccination tends to be milder than the "wild" variety. Dr Mary Ramsay, a consultant at the Public Health Laboratory in Hendon, London, agrees with Dr Marcovitch. "The benefits of vaccinations outweigh any risks," she says.
"All vaccines are carefully studied before being introduced and they are very effective at controlling diseases. Any medical intervention carries some risks, but these are very small compared with the risks of the disease." However, she concedes that she is not so concerned about mumps, which – in children – tends to be mild.
But Dr Mansfield, who took early retirement after becoming increasingly concerned at the government's mass infant vaccination programme, counters: "I've never seen a serious case of measles."
He thinks that some of the fears about measles are "greatly exaggerated" and believes that exposing children to natural infection is the best form of protection. Rachel's mumps, from which she has long since recovered, were successfully passed to a ninth family. The disease has spread through London, Hertfordshire and Surrey, to 15 children.
Lesley Dove volunteered for the role of network co-ordinator eight months ago. She rings members with information about diseases. She also took her children Jonathan, five, and Aurora, three, to visit Rachel, but they came away without contracting mumps.
Mrs Dove, who is a vegan, says she began looking into the question of vaccination because she was concerned about animal testing and was shocked to discover a lot of research that cast doubt on the wisdom of immunisation. "Some people see us as cranky," she says, "but we feel that exposing healthy children to measles, mumps and rubella gives them a mild disease and lifelong immunity."
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