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Retreating to the Church of Anti-Vaccination

Curiouser and Curiouser

Kylie Sturgess

June 3, 2013

Australian Media and Politicians Taking Steps to Stamp Out Pseudoscience

It’s been a month of interesting times for anti-vaccinationists in Australia, with a slew of commentary, media campaigns, documentaries, and even political condemnation for their failure to follow international health guidelines—to the point that in the state of New South Wales, they’re even considering getting religious exemptions en masse to avoid new vaccination policies.

We cannot claim that a single person or group is behind these changes; to do so is to neglect the hundreds and thousands of people who have raised their voices in many different ways. It takes more than a Facebook group, or a spokesperson, or even a whole newspaper to keep momentum going when it comes to public health—particularly with a solution to preventable deaths that has gained unnecessary and dangerous levels of controversy. While I usually despair when it comes to mainstream media’s coverage of pseudoscientific claims, particularly when it comes to eager attitudes about (false) balance, I’ve been personally overawed by the support for vaccinations on a number of fronts. Here’s a few of the highlights.

One massive newspaper campaign in NSW, which was then echoed by a number of other media outlets, has been particularly influential—the “No Jab, No Play” campaign, which started on May 5 and ran for two weeks. Stories included personal accounts of family tragedies and resilience (such as the Dana McCaffery case), regional effects of low vaccination rates, and even political pressure resulting in changed laws in support of vaccination. Other media outlets, like the Sydney Morning Herald and Herald Sun, soon echoed the pro-vaccination rally.

I wrote to Claire Harvey, the Features Editor for the Sunday Telegraph, News Limited, as to how the campaign started:

Basically it started because I was searching for a childcare centre in NSW and became aware of the loophole in the law. I asked Sunday Telegraph editor Mick Carroll and Daily Telegraph editor Paul Whittaker if they were keen to let me run a campaign. They were - so I assigned reporters led by Jane Hansen to about thirty-five story ideas and we approached state and federal governments telling them what we were about to do. Neither had a commitment to change the law so we started rolling out the stories from May 5th.

We ran approximately sixty stories and by two weeks later, NSW Opposition leader John Robertson and Tony Abbott both said they would act. Robertson said he would introduce bills to parliament - whereupon premier Barry O'Farrell announced he'd put a plan to Cabinet that went even further than Robertson's proposed bill. We are still campaigning for federal change - although Abbott is on board, we'd rather have legislation before parliament than a promise.

We have copped a huge amount of vitriol and nastiness but also vast support from our readers. Our heartland is western Sydney, where the vast majority of parents vaccinate. Their children's health is put at risk by parents in wealthy parts of Sydney where rates are much lower, and in 'alternative lifestyle' areas like Byron Bay where rates are shockingly low.

We are proud to have changed the law but now we want to help change people's attitudes by continuing to report the facts about vaccinations - they save lives.

On May 9 in the New South Wales House of Assembly, the Minister for Fair Trading, the Honourable Anthony Roberts, presented a speech in reply to the question “What action is the Government taking to protect the community from being misled by the Australian Vaccination Network?” He outlined the Government’s actions to finally enforce the change of the highly misleading name of the anti-vaccination group, the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN):

Just the day before, in the Upper House, the 2013 Health Legislation Amendment Bill passed, prior to being sent to become law. The Hansard transcript includes a number of interchanges in support of vaccination, including:

The Hon. TREVOR KHAN: …The Australian Vaccination Network publishes a website that could be described as highly sceptical, indeed far more than that.

The Hon. Dr PETER PHELPS: I think “insane” is the word you are looking for.

As the Telegraph continued their No Jab, No Play Campaign, on May 26 the documentary “Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines” was aired on the TV station SBS—directed by award-winning documentary maker Sonya Pemberton. While the reach of the documentary was limited, due to SBS being a traditionally low-rating and occasionally difficult to tune into station, the film was made available via internet streaming and for purchase through the website. Reviews were favourable, such as this one on the AusMed site by Janet McCalman, which particularly notes the documentary’s effort not to judge families regarding their choices. A forum with the director Sonya Pemberton is planned for Wednesday, June 5 in Melbourne.

The Conversation website, known as an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community, ran an interview on the May 27, “Pneumococcal rates plunge after widespread vaccination of infants.” It was conducted by the editor, Sunanda Creagh, with Public Health Physician Clayton Chiu and Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases David Isaacs, on the plunging rates of pneumococcal rates as a result of widespread vaccination. In it, they discussed the benefits of vaccinations, particularly “because of the herd immunity we get in the community.”

On May 29, the Telegraph ran the story “Big win for No Jab, No Play as NSW state cabinet approves tough new vaccination laws,” announcing that Health Minister Jillian Skinner amended the Public Health Act to make the checking of vaccine records compulsory—and to give staff the power to turn away those who aren't up to date. That same day, opinion columnist Janet Albrechtsen wrote “Zealots Forget The Epidemics” for the Commentary pages in the national broadsheet The Australian:

“According to our federal Department of Health, there is a whooping cough epidemic in this country…it’s not hard to figure out why. In Australia, up to one in five children in some regions are not fully immunised…Recent moves by NSW Labor Opposition Leader John Robertson and federal Liberal Opposition Leader Tony Abbott to empower childcare centres to refuse care to unvaccinated children are a good start, but let’s go further. No parent should receive tax benefits if they refuse to vaccinate their children.”

This was also the day that Bill Gates arrived in Australia—and as a staunch advocate (and financial backer) of vaccination, he was reported voicing his support in a number of news items and radio shows, particularly for his address at the National Press Club in Canberra and on ABC’s panel program Q&A.

By May 30, the Daily Telegraph was reporting on how Meryl Dorey of the Australian Vaccination Network had “urged followers on social media to join the ‘Church of Conscious Living’ as a way of avoiding vaccination laws,” which included the rejection of vaccination for adults, children, and animals. This will not be the end of challenges against vaccination, but at least with raised awareness and hastened responses to improving flawed laws and limited regulations, the month of May will hopefully be a significant turning point for improving vaccination rates in Australia.

Many thanks to Claire Harvey for her quotes for this article.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.