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Dr Lance O’Sullivan. Photo: Reagen Butler for 1972 magazine
Dr Lance O’Sullivan. Photo: Reagen Butler for 1972 magazine

ScienceMay 24, 2017

Dr Lance O’Sullivan on why he stormed the stage at an anti-vaxx screening

Dr Lance O’Sullivan. Photo: Reagen Butler for 1972 magazine
Dr Lance O’Sullivan. Photo: Reagen Butler for 1972 magazine

Last night Dr Lance O’Sullivan, 2014 New Zealander of the Year for his work bringing health programmes to disadvantaged rural areas, leapt onto the stage to protest a screening of the controversial anti-vaccination movie Vaxxed. He spoke to Don Rowe about why he did it.

Why did you get on stage?

Look, I was always intending to go to protest the presence of that movement, that campaign of peddling misinformation and falsehoods in our country and in my community. I knew they were coming – they actually invited me to go and after I protested she [event organiser Trina Cheel] said that I came under false pretenses but actually I was always coming, I was always going to protest. I never agreed to be a trained monkey sitting in the corner.

What was their agenda in inviting you?

I don’t know to be honest. I don’t think they thought that through very carefully. I guess what they were hoping was that they could convince me of something I had absolutely no reason to believe there’s even an ounce of credibility to. This is essentially like saying to me that seatbelts are unsafe and nobody should wear them. The science behind vaccinations is clear, it saves children’s lives. I really care about children in New Zealand and so it was the one thing, the one thing, that I’d be prepared to get arrested for, which is to fight this. So yeah, I’m pretty passionate about it and I have been for a long time.

Photo: Reagen Butler for 1972 magazine

How does it feel to see these people operating in a community which is already vulnerable and in which you do so much work to try and help?

I’ve had to hold in my arms a baby who’s trying their very best to die from a vaccine-preventable infectious disease. Now, for whatever reason that child ended up in my arms, I can tell you that it’s a horrible thought. And I’m not the only doctor. There are intensive care doctors around the country who will put these babies on a helicopter to try and save their lives. That is really hurtful. It’s hard for me to accept.

Two years ago I talked about how we should be tagging our benefits to immunisation – so if you’re on the benefit and you have a child who isn’t immunised, there should be a financial consequence for that. The positive side to that is that you’re incentivising people to immunise. And I got flayed for that. I believe that’s the way we should go forward because I’ve seen it happen where people just don’t immunise because to be quite frank they listen to rubbish like this. Now when I heard these people were coming to Northland I had already decided that if they were coming to Kaitaia, they chose the wrong town to come to.

You said their actions will directly lead to babies dying. People are going to say that’s very extremist. Do you stand by that?

I wouldn’t say that if I didn’t believe it. I have a level of mana that I value and protect for myself and I wouldn’t go out there and say this if I didn’t believe this was the truth. These aren’t people that hold the ravaged bodies of young children in our emergency departments and our intensive care units around the country from vaccine-preventable diseases. Quite frankly they are promoting lies that will harm communities like mine, and actually harm a lot of New Zealand children.

What would be your message to those who dispute this?

I don’t know. I don’t even know if I have enough time to engage in conversation [about it]. They’re actually quite a vile group of people. One of them has started attacking my family. One of the offensive things they’ve said is that I’m doing this for money, that I get paid to immunise children and I’m doing this because I’m the whore of pharmaceutical companies.

That’s so offensive it’s not funny. They’ve attacked my family and the fact that I have a child with a serious disability. They’ve made fun of that to the point where they’ve said ‘Well if there’d been a vaccine available Lance wouldn’t have a son with a terminal disease.’ I think that sucks. That just shows how low they’re prepared to stoop. I’ve at no time ever attacked these individuals, I’ve said the issue is the important thing here. What would I say to them? I don’t think I’d give them the time of day because I don’t think they’re worthy of it. My focus would be on the communities that are prepared to listen to sense and reason to avoid unnecessary death and harm to our children.

What would you say to those who are on the fence?

Look I haven’t watched this movie and for good reason. I will not let the counter click over by one more on YouTube by me watching it. I’m just saying to people you’re endorsing and validating them if they can say hundreds of thousands of people are watching. You have to have a certain amount of trust in the people who are in the area of health and know what we’re talking about. I don’t mean that in a paternalistic way, but we are dedicated. We are committed to our communities. We’re committed to the health of our country. These people will cause us immeasurable harm and the greatest way to protest is to ignore them.

Read more: Yes, we’re going there – Should you vaccinate your child?

Portrait of Dr Lance O’Sullivan by Reagan Butler for Barkers’ 1972 journal.

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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