Monday, 26 January 2015

Guns and toys

I bought the current issue of Australian Marie Claire with my shopping this week - it's one of my guilty pleasures. I like the reportage - and the fashion and food sections! In amongst the articles is part of a photographic essay by Belgian photographer An-Sofie Kesteleyn that was inspired by the story of five year old Kristian Sparks, who shot his two year old sister, Caroline. It wasn't like so many of the stories you hear about kids playing with their parent's weapons and discharging them. It was with a gun that is being marketed in the US as a child's 'first gun' - and comes in pink and blue, just like baby clothes.

To be fair, clearly Kristian's parents didn't intend for him to be shooting people when they gave him the gun for his birthday. However, what is a common practice in many places in the States, where hunting and gun ownership are the norm, clearly creates an environment where accidents of this type are almost certainly going to be much more frequent. Within this sector of the community, teaching a child to handle a gun early is 'normal'. From my own perspective, thinking back to when I was five, that was the age my godmother took us all to learn to milk the house cow! With my own children, I think they were at a stage where, perched on a chair, they were learning to do most of a load of washing up by themselves. 

American gun culture is pretty alien to me, I have to say. I get the historical context from within their constitution - the statement about the 'right to bear arms' which dates from times when the country was in its infancy. However, given that it's in the constitution, it's become something that smacks - to me - of a sense of entitlement to, at times, take the law into one's own hands. And certainly, it means that gun ownership is something that isn't restricted to those on the land, or in gun clubs for sport, as we find more commonly here in Australia. The Port Arthur shooting prompted then Prime Minister John Howard to initiate a review of national firearms laws, and there was a huge buy back initiative of restricted weapons.

Accurate statistics are not available for the number of people killed by children accidentally shooting them. Off the top of my head, apart from the Kristian Sparks case, two other cases come to mind from recent times - one, a toddler who shot his mother in a supermarket with the pistol she carried in her handbag, and two, the nine year old girl who killed her instructor with an Uzi at a shooting range. 

In the first case, the woman apparently always carried a pistol, because she comes from a family who love to hunt and all own weapons. The pistol was in a specially designed pocket in her handbag, specifically for carrying a concealed weapon, given to her by her husband. She was in Walmart with the toddler in the trolley, and four nieces on foot with her. A moment of distraction, a curious toddler rooting around in her bag, a gun with the safety, obviously, not on...and now she's dead. In the second case, the nine year old girl was being instructed in the use of an Uzi - a high powered automatic weapon used by the armed forces. You have to ask WHY??? Why on earth is a nine year old being taught to shoot in the first place, and with a weapon like that? By all accounts, the kick back from those is hard for an adult to manage, let alone a child. It makes no sense at all. 

What Kesteleyn's photo essay really hammers home is the 'normality' of guns in American culture. While events like the Sandy Hook massacre have galvinised more people to protest for changes to the gun laws in America, the gun lobby appears to be an extraordinarily powerful force, and nothing much seems to be changing.
Cross to Sydney, and the recent siege at the Lindt Cafe with the loss of two innocent lives. In the wake of that event, independent senator, David Leyonhjelm wrote an article for the Sydney Morning Herald claiming that if Australians were permitted to carry weapons, there'd have not been the tragic outcome of that siege, as hostages would have been able to defend themselves. Leyonhjelm's party platform includes a mandate to be able to own and carry weapons, among other things. However, from the backlash against the article, it would appear, thankfully, that the majority of Australians don't agree with him.

I find myself, each time I hear of a new gun tragedy in America, being deeply thankful I don't live there. That similar incidents are much rarer here. And that's how I'd like to see them stay. I don't want to see our society reach a point where they're complacent about guns, because it's 'normal' to have them. I grew up partly in the country, so I knew people who had them who lived on properties. They weren't complacent. Those guns were locked up with the ammunition in separate locked cabinets whenever they weren't in use. And certainly, as little kids, they didn't have access to them, ever. One of my mates got given his first gun, a twenty two, for his 16th birthday. That was pretty standard. And again, there was a context. They were on properties, having to deal with feral foxes, rabbits and other pests, as well as having the capacity for putting down stock that got injured or was sick. So, it was part and parcel of the business of farming. I can see the attraction of sport shooting too - clay pigeons, and range shooting. I did archery for a little while before my shoulders gave out, and loved the mental challenge of the focus needed to hit the target. Since I can't do archery any more, I've toyed with the idea of a pistol for the same challenge - but I don't really want to shoot a gun. And in any case - again, it's not about hunting, or wanting to have a gun to have a gun...

My instinctive reaction, always, when I read about these shootings is that guns aren't toys. I got into fearful trouble with No.2's father's family when I refused to allow them to give the boys toy guns. The very idea of making toy versions of them dilutes the concept that they're NOT toys. They're dangerous weapons that are designed to kill things. It didn't stop the boys playing shooting games - like my brother, friends, and I as children, they made them out of sticks and Lego. There was a clear element of make believe involved. Offer them replica guns and that fantasy element is hugely diminished. With the kids in America, they don't even have that element of fantasy - they're being given real guns. They're growing up with this as 'normal'. There is nowhere in my thinking that I can find that that's OK.

*Images from An-Sofie Kesteleyn's photographic essay, with the drawings she asked each child to do to tell her what really frightened them. For me, the absence of fearful things that could be dealt with by shooting is particularly telling.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

The death penalty - who is responsible?

After six people, five of them not Indonesian nationals, were executed yesterday in Indonesia for drug trafficking, there have been renewed calls on the Australian government to intercede for Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, who after their appeals have failed, face death by firing squad sometime this year. Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, appeared on breakfast television this morning, stating that she and others continue to 'make representations' to the Indonesian government, and the press is full of articles that voice Australian outrage about the death penalty.
Andrew Chan and Myruan Sukumaran
Those executed yesterday included a Brazilian and Dutch national, and the ambassadors from both countries have been recalled home in protest, after pleas from their respective governments failed to sway the decision. Bishop was asked if, in the event that Sukumaran and Chan are executed, whether Australia would recall its ambassador too. She fudged the answer on that, but as my partner queried at the time, Indonesia is one of our strongest trading partners, and we have a ticklish relationship with them at the best of times, so will the government risk that for two individuals who made a bad choice?

Personally, I am against the death penalty. I don't honestly believe that killing someone solves the issues surrounding this particular crime, or indeed, many other crimes. The Hoopla ran a story today asking how executing people can stop drug trafficking. The evidence, with people continuing to traffic drugs, even to countries with severe penalties like Indonesia, would suggest that the lure of 'easy' money is stronger than the potential deterrent of a death penalty, should you be caught.

At the same time, I have to feel that people who continue to smuggle drugs in and out of Indonesia have to be incredibly arrogant or completely stupid - it's not as if we in Australia are unaware of the stiff penalties those who are caught could face. And despite the many articles and news stories that speak of Chan and Sukumaran's rehabilitation during the time they've been incarcerated, I find myself wondering how much of that has been due to having had a death sentence hanging over them for the years since they were arrested. Clearly, at that point in time, their focus was on moving the drugs and making their money - and there was, perhaps, little thought about the havoc those drugs would potentially wreak on many many people and their families. 

I wrote recently about my younger son and his recent very bad choices that have lead him to become addicted to ice. It's now two months since that hurried trip to his home town, and I have no real news of him. A couple of weeks after I returned home, I had an email from the mental health nurse with whom I'd been corresponding to say she'd managed to speak to him briefly, and that he sounded OK, said he had somewhere to stay, and that, no he didn't want to work with them. Last week, I had a call from his psychiatrist's receptionist, as he'd missed a number of scheduled appointments, and they'd not been able to contact him. All I could do was pass on his current phone number and hope he still has that phone. The text message I sent a few weeks ago disappeared into a black hole. 

I deplore the choices he's made. I am so frustrated and angry, on top of being worried sick, by what looks to me like a giant cop out. He told me when I saw him that the ice made him feel like he could cope - which is all well and good until he takes some from a bad batch, or ODs... I have NO good feelings about the people dealing this appalling drug, and would want to see them punished to the fullest possible extent of the law if they could be caught. Here, that wouldn't mean they face a death penalty - just a very long time in prison. And I don't believe that in itself is sufficient deterrent either, because it's clearly not deterring people when the number of ice addicts (not to mention other drugs) is growing, and the median age of addicts is getting much lower. 

I feel so bad for the parents and family of the two men in Bali - who, through their son's bad choices face losing them, just as I face the possibility that I may lose No.2. We're not meant to bury our children. 

However, and what prompted me finally to write this post, this is - at rock bottom - about choices. As I said to No.2 - like a broken record, because I've been saying this to both the boys forever - there is ALWAYS a choice. We may not always like the options we're looking at at any given point in time, but there always is a choice... Those boys in Bali didn't have to traffic drugs. They could have done what many others do, and looked at career options long term. As it is, they've both been studying while they've been incarcerated, and are close to finishing university courses. Why didn't they do that earlier? Sure, it's not the way to 'easy' money, but it's not going to get them killed either. As a parent, I'm sure I know which way I'd rather see my children make that choice. No.2 spoke many times over the last year about the study options he was considering, once he'd found a job and got his routine back on track. I did many things to help him towards that, but in the end, apparently it was all too hard. 

Along with the choices we make comes the responsibility for the consequences. Like it or not, those two things are irrevocably linked. I remember, way back when the boys were tiny, teaching them about consequences. Simple things; if you don't put your toys away, I'll put them away and they won't be there when you want them next. Your toys are your responsibility. It worked. After suffering through the loss of their toys, they learned to tidy up after themselves when they'd been playing. Teaching children is an incremental process of things just like that - the bigger they get, the more important the choices, and the bigger the stakes when it comes to consequences. It may sound like I'm over simplifying this, but honestly, WHAT were the Bali Nine thinking when they made the choice that they did? They knew the possible consequences. They had to know that they were taking appalling risks. Even if they'd slipped through and not been caught, what about the flow on from their actions for countless numbers of others? And ultimately, had they not been caught that time, if they'd continued, eventually their luck would have run out... Is it a symptom of the times we live in that people don't think through their actions? And then, when it all falls apart, that someone should rescue them - because by our lights, the consequences are unfair? 

Indonesia has had the death penalty for serious drug trafficking for some time. When we leave Australia and travel to other countries, we are bound by the laws of those countries when we're there, just as visitors here are bound by Australian law. Surely THAT'S the message that should be getting through. Surely people should be looking at this particular case and realising that there are no easy outs. And, if it comes to these two young men being executed, it won't be because our government failed to sway the Indonesian government. It will be because these two men decided to traffic illicit drugs in a country where they knew that if they were caught, they could die as a consequence. And they did it anyway.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

The Vaccination Myth

Every time I think the discussion about vaccinating children has fizzled out, it rears its head again. Dragon Dad and I just got back from a walk to our local for morning coffee and the papers. While we were out I read this article by Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald about the current situation where we have American anti-vaccination advocate, Dr Sherri Tenpenny, booked to come to Australia on a speaking tour. There has been a vocal response from many in the pro-vaccination sector demanding she be blocked from entry to the country, with a counterpoint saying that Australia's right to free speech says that she should be allowed to come and those who don't want to hear what she says just don't have to go.

Farrelly's discussion revolves not so much about the pros or cons of vaccination, per se, as much as who we, as members of the public, should be able to trust when it comes to the available information about the issue. Well-known medical journal, the Lancet, published a paper in 1998 by Dr Andrew Wakefield that started the MMR-Autism scare and subsequent furore, prompting significant numbers of parents to not vaccinate. That myth has since been solidly debunked, Farrelly citing a 2014 study by University of Sydney Associate Professor Guy Eslick which found 'a consistent ... lack of evidence for an association between autism, autism spectrum disorders and childhood vaccinations', based on a study of 1.25 million children. The Lancet article has since been retracted, with the editors officially saying they 'regret' publication.

The anti-vaccination crew's main argument against childhood vaccinations is mostly based on the potential harm the vaccinations can cause - from allergies to long term serious conditions. As far as I can see, this comes with a (to my way of thinking) willful ignoring of the hazards of NOT vaccinating. As Farrelly says,
But first to the science. There is little doubt that vaccines work, or that anti-vaccination campaigns are largely snake oil.
Take measles. The World Health Organisation announced in March that Australia had eliminated measles, but every year sees a few hundred cases amongst the unvaccinated. 2014 saw outbreaks in every state, with spikes in Queensland, Victoria and WA. Melbourne recorded 56 cases between January and July, the highest since 1999.
Measles doesn't sound serious. Certainly I had it, as a child. Yet one in 20 children with measles will develop pneumonia, says the United States Centre for Disease Prevention, and one in 1000, encephalitis. One or two in a thousand, mostly infants, will die. (Tenpenny, a doctor of osteopathy, puts this figure at three  in ten million).
Or take pertussis (whooping cough). Between 1981 and 2009, rates across the world roughly halved. In Australia, however, they soared – from 170 cases in 1981 to 29,545 in 2009 – prompting Professor  Peter McIntyre, from the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance, to tag Australia "the world capital of pertussis."
My boys are 29 and 23, so come vaccination time for them, it was still early days in the debate. I do remember some rumblings, but not nearly enough for me to even consider NOT vaccinating them. With No.1, we had a few days of a mild temperature and fussiness, but that was about it, as far as reactions go. He then went on to a disgustingly healthy childhood - the most serious thing we really had to deal with was a particularly nasty case of chicken pox (vaccinating for chicken pox wasn't a thing then) when he was four, and for him, the main tragedy of that was that he couldn't have a birthday party...

No.2 was quite different. At 8 weeks, we trotted off to the local baby centre for the first shot. Within a couple of hours at home, I had a baby spiking a humungous temperature, and projectile vomiting the baby panadol I tried to get into him to bring it down. It ran for ten days, and was terrifying - all the more because I'd experienced a febrile convulsion with No.1, and really didn't want to go there again. All the doctor could suggest was sponging him down and feeding him as much as possible to try and prevent him becoming dehydrated. She also suggested that we do the next vaccination at four months in two parts a week apart. The nurse at the baby centre was a bit iffy about that when we went in, but caved when I told her that I'd leave without any vaccination unless she would do it that way. It didn't work. The temperature was marginally lower after the first dose, but not enough to make much difference, given it too ran for about ten days. Back at the doctor's, she said not to do the other half and suggested it was probably the whooping cough component, and to request the third vaccination minus that bit. THAT was fine. But it meant that No.2 was never properly immunised against whooping cough, and with the rise of cases due to lack of immunisation that was a constant worry during childhood. Fortunately, he was never exposed.

However, at six, after passing a monstrous gallstone, he had to have his gallbladder removed - on the ultrasound, it looked like a bag of marbles. The ultrasound also showed that one kidney was significantly smaller than the other one. The paediatric surgeon said that the formation of gallstones in such a young child could be put down to some abnormality that caused stones that formed during extended febrile episodes to not dissolve once he had rehydrated, and that the kidney indicated that those febrile epsiodes could have been due to undiagnosed kidney infections, but, there were also those extreme and lengthy febrile periods post vaccinations. We'll never really know, and he's healthy now. But, if I had my time over, I'd still vaccinate, because that experience was unusual - which may not be the case for thousands of children if infection and complications due to preventable diseases due to lack of immunisation continue to rise...

I would suggest, for the skeptics among us, that a bit of research into the stats in countries where vaccinations AREN'T done would be sensible, as well as looking at the changes in stats in countries where they are, but people have got on what I consider to be a hysteria wagon generated by irresponsible publications and self-styled alternative experts. Harsh? It's the lives of our children we have to consider, and the wider community. Vaccinations work. Only a small percentage of children will have a legitimate allergic reaction. Even then, the potential consequences of NOT vaccinating can be far worse. 

Please, folks, vaccinate.