Arts

Irish author Melissa Hill's fictional take on the vaccine debate

Jenny Lee talks to Irish author Melissa Hill about her new novel on the topic of childhood vaccinations, seeing her work on screen and co-writing a crime series with her husband

How far would you go to protect your child? This is the central question of bestseller Melissa Hill's latest novel, Keep You Safe, about the impact of two mothers' decision not to vaccinate their children against measles, mumps and rubella

GUILT, love, accountability, responsibility, family life and the overwhelming instinct of parents to protect their children all come under the microscope in Co Wicklow author Melissa Hill's latest novel.

Keep You Safe is set in a small Irish town outside Dublin, and tells the story of two young girls who are unvaccinated, one due to medical reasons and one due to her parents' fears that the MMR vaccine might cause their children harm or lead to autism.

When successful online mummy blogger Madeline Cooper sends her daughter Clara to school one morning, despite the child showing symptoms of illness, she is horrified to learn that not only has Clara got measles but she has passed it on to another child in the class – Rosie O’Hara.

Five-year-old Rosie is one of a small percentage of children who can’t be vaccinated against any diseases because she has a rare and severe allergy to live vaccines and her condition soon becomes critical.

Hill is one of Ireland's most popular fiction authors. Her contemporary novels on families and friendship have been translated into 25 languages worldwide. The inspiration for Keep You safe was sparked by her personal concerns regarding the MMR vaccination for her own daughter, who is now seven.

“At the time, my husband and I had heard about the Wakefield controversy and the vaccine’s potential connection to autism,” she says, referring to an infamous research paper by English medical researcher Andrew Wakefield that falsely claimed there was a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. Wakefield was struck off the medical register after his conclusions were found to be fraudulent – and studies have since concluded there is no relationship between vaccination and autism.

"Even though the link had been discredited, we were hesitant about proceeding until we thoroughly research the matter ourselves," the author says.

"The issue raised its head again when my daughter's school sent out MMR booster consent forms. I recalled that overwhelmingly negative sentiment towards parents who expressed even the slightest reservation about the vaccine.

"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 judgment 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."

While she knew vaccination had attracted controversy, through her research and speaking to families on both sides of the debate Hill realised she had underestimated just how emotive an issue it was.

"All the parents I spoke to are almost paralysed by fear and worried they will make the wrong decision. And while scientific evidence has shown [previously purported] links to autism have been 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.

"I also found that the slightest hint of mistrust or concern about the vaccine is severely frowned upon and vehemently dismissed by [other] parents. [Parents who express misgivings] are almost always written off as raving conspiracy theorists, who make a rash decision based on a headline they read online. Even people like Kate who can’t vaccinate their kids, are reluctant to talk about it and admit it because of the hostility anti-vac parents do get, which is unfair."

Getting to the human story was the most important thing for Hill.

"I just hope readers enjoy taking a thought-provoking journey with each of the characters and recognising that, like all parents, they are both trying to do the best they can to protect their children."

Hill enjoyed writing the novel, especially creating a character she knew many readers would dislike.

"Madeline's character gave me great freedom. In our genre in particular there is almost an expectation that your characters have to be very likeable and you have to empathise with them in every way."

She also admits that, as an addict of John Grisham's novels, she enjoyed indulging in the courtroom research.

"I know in the UK you have parents suing each other for not vaccinating – where one wants the child to be vaccinated and the other doesn’t – but nothing has been tested. Madeline sending her daughter to school knowing she was ill and the whole duty of care aspect was the fact that would get the case to court."

However, as a writer, Hill is no stranger to crime: she co-writes a crime series with her husband Kevin under the pseudonym Casey Hill. Their series featuring forensic investigator CSI Reilly Steel is hugely popular in the US, where it has been optioned for television.

So how does the co-writing process work and does it lead to domestic harmony?

"We rough plot the book and write two separate versions and take the best out of both. It works for us because we come at it from different angles. We try not to take our work home in the evening because our poor daughter would be tired listening to us," she laughs.

Hill's writing has attracted interest from broadcasters and film producers. She has been offered a UK mini-series, while a TV movie adaptation of her novel A Gift to Remember, about a girl who finds romance with a handsome stranger with amnesia, is being shown on the Hallmark channel in America next month. Her 2011 novel Something From Tiffany's is in pre-production with a Hollywood studio.

"A Gift to Remember happened so quickly. They literally only optioned it last year and it went very quickly into production. I'm hopeful it's also going to be distributed in the UK. I am nervous about seeing it because there is a dog in it with a really big part and I’m just hoping they get the dog's part right," she laughs.

:: Keep You Safe by Melissa Hill is published by Harper Collins and is out now.

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