Thursday, 02 February 2012

A History Of Stupidity

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In 1796 a very special and very dangerous kind of idiot was born.

Smallpox was running rampant throughout Europe until a brilliant surgeon named Edward Jenner noticed something interesting. Victims of the less dangerous cowpox disease appeared immune to smallpox. He tested this theory by injecting an 8-year-old boy with pus from the sores of a cowpox ridden dairymaid. The outcome of that simple but disgusting experiment was that, almost 200 years later, smallpox was eradicated. We also got a new English word — vaccination from the Latin word for cowpox vaccinia.

Given the horrors of smallpox, one would assume that this action would be hailed as a laudable enterprise. Unfortunately for the more rational population, a group of anti-vaccination propagandists began spreading the word that the cowpox vaccine maleficent. A newspaper cartoon from 1802 bears the caption “The Cow Pock -or- the Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation!” and features a stunted dwarf carrying a bucket labelled “Vaccine pock hot from the cow” to a room full of patients. These unfortunates find miniature cows erupting from various parts of the body. A woman vomiting up a cow while another crawls out from beneath her dress is particularly repellent.

It is both bewildering and troubling that the anti-vaccine movement still exists. In the early 1800s it was the ‘Anti-Vaccine Society’ and today, in 2012 we have the more cleverly titled ‘Australian Vaccination Network’ (AVN). This is an organisation that presents as a centre for vaccine information. Their stated aim is to educate parents about the “truths” of vaccination in order to help them make the right choices for their family. At face value, this is truly a noble goal. However, their goal is not education but eradication. Of vaccines, that is.

The AVN are firmly convinced that vaccines are the root of all evil; that it causes autism, SIDS and quite possibly Armageddon. They claim that diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella (immunised against by the MMR vaccine) are ‘non-threatening’, and contracting them as a child will lead to life-long immunity.

According to the NSW Health Department, adverse reactions to vaccination caused death in less than 0.3 per 100,000 doses, whereas measles-complicated deaths occurred in between 10 and 10,000 instances per 100,000 cases.


The AVN claim that they are not and never have been anti-vaccination, yet they attach their name to a t-shirt that reads “Love them. Protect them. Never inject them.” The AVN also proudly supports disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield, who faked medical data in order to claim a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. Despite him having been thoroughly discredited, the AVN still rallies under his banner.

The AVN cherry-picks data which may suggest that vaccines are dangerous and completely ignores the mountains of data that suggest otherwise. The leader of this rag-tag bunch of educational polluters is Meryl Dorey, activist, speaker and author who is trying to ‘save the world’ from imagined vaccine evils. In 2010 the Health Care Complaints Commission issued a public health warning against Dorey’s group, stating that her data was incorrect, misleading and one-sided.

Dorey has assailed families whose children have died, attempting to get them to ‘confess’ that a vaccine was the cause. Her behaviour is completely irrational and potentially deadly. In fact, due to the drop in the vaccination rate, we are currently seeing a resurgence of diseases such as measles and whooping cough. The drop in the vaccination rate allows the diseases to spread more easily and infect babies who are too young to be vaccinated.

Members of the AVN often engage in the nirvana fallacy by saying that because they are not 100% safe, vaccines are too dangerous to use. It is definitely true that there are some risks with vaccines. 10% of children who receive the MMR vaccine can suffer from a rash and fever days to weeks afterwards. Where the AVN fails, is in the evaluation of risk versus reward.

Despite the clear risk Dorey’s proselytizing presents, the Woodford Folk Festival held in the Sunshine Coast Hinterland of Queensland, invited Dorey to speak at their 2011 event. They boast over 100,000 attendees who participate in arts and crafts workshops, listen to music and buy organic doughnuts. This year they can also hear the lies, rants and confused commentary of someone who refuses to accept credible scientific data as evidence that her insane beliefs are wrong.

Dorey’s alarmist talk, “Autism Emergency, 1 child in 38” is based on a five-year South Korean study, which revealed that 1 in 38 children suffered from autism spectrum disorder (ASD) which is an apparently alarming increase from previous studies. The authors however stated that the results do not represent an increase in the disorder, they represent better detection of ASD.

Many concerned members of the public have contacted the festival organiser, (Moreton Bay regional council) and the Queensland premier, Anna Bligh. Unfortunately the responses have been less than overwhelming. The council claim to be pro-vaccine but also feel that Dorey has the right to express her opinions. Bligh passed the matter over to the Minister for Health, Geoff Wilson. Wilson stated emphatically that vaccines are vital for the health of a nation; however, he loves the festival and feels that it has more than enough of interest to distract people from Dorey’s rubbish. Those who do listen, he says, shouldn’t take her nonsense too seriously.

Most disappointing was the response from the festival executive director, Bill Hauritz. Hauritz masterfully dodged the issue with a series of bizarre claims and excuses. He stated that many of the festival presenters have been discredited in some kind, so why target Dorey specifically? He’s happy to promote Dorey as an expert because that’s how she bills herself. He feels that there is a scientific lobby trying to make money out of the public’s health fears. Despite not having seen Dorey’s contract, he still claimed that it was unbreakable.

Undeterred, the protestors continued hounding the Woodford organisers until a concession was made. Dorey would not be given her own private platform; instead she would have to share the stage with research scientist and immunologist, Professor Andreas Suhrbier. She would still have a chance to speak but only against somebody with actual credentials. It was a step in the right direction but not a very big one.

When an issue is controversial, balance is important. We need to hear both sides of the debate to make informed decisions. Nobody questions this. The problem is that vaccine-safety is not a controversial topic, at least not in reality. Vaccines save lives, this is a fact. There is no other side to this debate. If an astronomer gave a presentation regarding the moon’s composition would we insist on balancing the issue by having a “the moon is made of cheese” theorist state their views? Of course not. So why do we make that mistake with vaccines?

Dorey’s presentation consisted of misrepresented facts, anecdotes and emotive pleas. Whilst asserting that parents should make informed decisions, she insisted that her “evidence” was the only information required.

Unfortunately I cannot see Dorey’s dangerous message ending any time soon. Vaccination rates are still dropping and vaccine-preventable illnesses are becoming more and more commonplace.

The bottom line really is this: information about vaccines is a good thing. The more you know, the better equipped you are to make the right choice. Just don’t get your information solely from Meryl Dorey or the AVN. Hell, don’t even get your information from me or the SAVN. Go talk to a doctor.

Read 4261 times Last modified on Saturday, 04 August 2012
Adam vanLangenberg

Adam vanLangenberg is a secondary school maths teacher and coordinator of a sceptical society for teenagers.

Follow him on Twitter @vanAdamme