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September 2017

In her new novel, Keep You Safe, bestselling author Melissa Hill explores the dispute which still exists for some parents over childhood vaccinations and explains why, as a mother, she felt compelled to discover the reasons why...

The inspiration for Keep You Safe was initially sparked by my own concerns re MMR vaccinations for my daughter as a baby a few years back. At the time, my husband and I had heard about the Wakefield controversy* and the vaccine’s potential connection to autism. Even though the link had been discredited, we were still hesitant about proceeding until we'd thoroughly researched the matter ourselves. I suffer from a congenital spine condition – the result of a since-banned drug prescribed to my mother while pregnant – and for this reason wanted to put my mind at ease by carrying out due diligence on medical recommendations.

We did vaccinate our daughter, deciding that the risks far outweighed any misgivings, but for my part I was intrigued by the very negative response amongst some friends and family (and especially other parents) towards anyone who decides not to. 

The issue raised its head again when my daughter’s school sent out MMR booster consent forms not long after she started. I recalled that overwhelmingly negative sentiment towards parents who expressed even the slightest reservation about the vaccine, and figured such feelings would be even more heightened amongst parents of school-going children –
especially if an unvaccinated child happened to become ill.

For me it raised an interesting question: If you truly believed your child was in danger, should you still be expected to go against your better judgement for the greater good? And if you don’t, risk being effectively demonised by the community if the worst happens. Thus the idea for Keep You Safe was born.

In the story, we meet two mothers who live very different lives in a small town outside Dublin. Both are trying to do the best they can for their five-year-old daughters. Kate O’Hara, who has recently become a single mum after the sudden death of her husband, knows all about the importance of vaccinations as she's a nurse. But her daughter, Rosie, suffers from a rare condition that makes her allergic to the gelatin in vaccines. For this reason, Rosie has not been vaccinated.

Meanwhile mummy blogger Madeleine Cooper, who seems to live a picture-perfect life with her husband and two children, has chosen not to vaccinate her daughter, Clara due to misgivings about the vaccine. But when Clara contracts measles and Rosie falls seriously ill soon after, will Kate end up paying for Madeleine’s choice?

While I knew vaccination was a controversial topic, it soon became apparent that I’d completely underestimated just how emotive an issue it truly was. I spoke to families, trawled through hundreds of online articles and discussions from both sides of the debate, and don’t think I have ever come across a subject that stirred up so much discord and anger among parents.

I found that the slightest hint of mistrust or concern about the vaccine is severely frowned-upon and vehemently dismissed by parents who don’t question it. Those who choose not to vaccinate are almost immediately written-off as raving conspiracy-theorists who aren’t to be trusted with their own or anyone else’s children. When the truth is, like all parents, they are merely trying to weigh up all options based on the information available, in order to make the best decision for their child.

And while the Wakefield/autism research has been widely and repeatedly discredited, there remains countless heartbreaking stories from parents who watched their children degenerate within hours of being vaccinated, which is likely why doubt still persists. As the majority of parenting decisions are based on anecdotal advice and shared experiences, it’s somewhat surprising that these accounts are still so easily dismissed and often ridiculed.

I wanted to explore in greater detail the more personal nuances behind MMR refusal and try to illuminate the very real fears some parents have about vaccination. I was also concerned to find that many parents – like Kate – who can’t/don’t vaccinate their children for medical reasons, are often afraid to admit this publicly for fear of such a backlash.

But it was also crucial to illustrate the massively serious and heartbreaking effects of disease on children who are unprotected, and thus completely reliant on herd immunity. 
While I hope readers enjoy taking a thought-provoking journey with each of the characters, I also hope that the Cooper family’s point of view might help tame for some a little of the hostility and anger surrounding the vaccination debate. Yet more importantly, show that a decision not to vaccinate unquestionably provokes real consequences on a broader societal level, and thus comes with responsibilities outside of the personal.

Ultimately, both families in Keep You Safe are dealing with precisely the same issue parents all over the world and from every walk of life struggle with every day; keeping their children safe from harm.

*The Public Health Agency state that after clean water, vaccination is the most effective public health intervention in the world for saving lives and promoting good health.

* In Northern Ireland the childhood vaccination programme has been a tremendous success with uptake rates at an all-time high and well above the UK average. GPs and all their staff and health visitors have worked extremely hard over recent years to ensure parents and carers are educated about the importance of keeping all childhood vaccinations up to date.

* Dr Andrew Wakefield gained notoriety in 1998 with a research paper, which was later discredited, which argued the joint measles, mumps and rubella vaccine was a potential cause of autism and bowel disorders. Wakefield was struck off the UK medical register in 2010, when a statutory tribunal held by the General Medical Council found him guilty of “dishonesty” and said he had subjected children to invasive medical procedures they did not need.

* In March 2017, The World Health Organisation warned that measles is spreading across Europe where immunisation coverage has dropped.

* The MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine is available free on the NHS for babies and pre-school children.

Keep You Safe by Melissa Hill is published by HQ, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Keep You Safe is available in hardback, eBook and audio book from September 21, 2017.

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