Issue 5 / 2 August 2010

Vaccination is perhaps the classic case of balancing the general good against individual freedom.

Just as we limit the right to free speech by saying it is not OK to shout “Fire!” in a crowded cinema, we limit the right to refuse medical treatment by saying that all children should be immunised to protect them – and society as a whole – against life-threatening diseases.

In practice, of course, compulsory childhood vaccination isn’t really compulsory at all, as vaccination rates that hover around the 90% mark attest. Nobody is actually rounding children up and injecting them against their parents’ will.

The consequences of less than universal immunisation were tragically exposed last year when 4-week-old Dana McCaffery died of whooping cough before she was old enough to have received the vaccine.

Since they went public with calls for a campaign to boost vaccination rates, Dana’s parents claim to have been harrassed and threatened by anti-immunisation campaigners.

Dana lived on the north coast of New South Wales, an area where vaccination rates are low and locals are well known to be more easily convinced of the benefits of herbal medicines than of anything sponsored by government.

It’s no coincidence that the region is also home to one of the nation’s most vocal lobby groups on the issue.

The Australian Vaccination Network (it would probably be more accurate if AVN stood for Anti-Vaccination Network) last week refused to comply with a NSW Health Care Complaints Commission call for it to include various caveats on its website.

The HCCC found the network provided exclusively anti-vaccination information, including material that was incorrect and misleading with selective use of research to suggest the alleged dangers of vaccines.

It recommended the AVN add a prominent statement to make it clear it was anti-vaccination, that information on the site was not to be taken as medical advice and that decisions about vaccination should be made in consultation with a health professional.

Sounds reasonable? The AVN has so far refused to comply and it seems there is little authorities can do about it.

It’s hard to imagine the AVN will ever voluntarily recommend concerned parents seek medical advice.

The group believes immunisation incentives for GPs have created a “grossly unethical” situation that sees doctors rewarded for “pushing” vaccines.

“Parents no longer trust that their doctors will recommend that they vaccinate simply because it is the best thing for their child rather than the best thing for the doctor’s bottom line,” the AVN says.

Free speech is one thing but is spreading unsubstantiated fears about vaccine safety, while claiming to be supplying unbiased information, really that different from shouting “Fire!” in the crowded cinema? And should authorities have the power to do something about it?

Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer. She has worked for Melbourne’s The Age and contributed to publications including the BMJ, The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald. She is also a former news and features editor with Australian Doctor magazine. Her book, The sex factory, on the science of sex and gender will be published by UNSW Press later this year.

9 thoughts on “Jane McCredie: The vaccination debate turns ugly

  1. Meryl Dorey says:

    To Macsking,

    In this New Age of doctors who ignore evidence and don’t report vaccine reactions when parents report to them – if a vaccinated child of yours were to come down with a disease they were supposed to be protected against, would you blame the unvaccinated? Are you aware that vaccination cannot prevent the asymptomatic carriage of or infection with diseases such as pertussis? (look it up for yourself – it’s true).

    Lastly, if the Vice President of the AMA has the nerve to accuse the AVN of uttering misleading statements but is not brave enough to defend his accusation by debating me in public and proving his assertions, one is left with no option but to assume that his accusations were nothing more then the empty words

    Where are the facts? Where is the debate?

    Those who cannot defend their stance deserve neither respect nor attention. Show us the science – welcome open debate. It is the only way.

    Meryl Dorey
    Australian Vaccination Network, Inc.

  2. macsking says:

    In this New Age of quacks, wizards, gurus, pseudos and messiahs I should not be surprised by the emergence of ratbag quasi-experts like AVN. I ask them – if a child of theirs was to be stricken with a vaccine-preventable disease would they take the child to a hospital to be treated by a valid medical practitioner? Would they trust scientific medicine? Would they allow a vaccine to be used? Would they allow siblings to be vaccinated as a precaution?

  3. fairgo says:

    considering that you are now calling yourself a group of private citizens with a point of view (AVN challenges AMA to a debate) rather than a vaccination advocacy watchdog, I can’t see how you would have the qualifications to challenge anyone to a debate on a medical matter even assuming that there was ever anything to debate about. Doesn’t it make you wonder why nobody ever takes up the challenge of a debate?

  4. Kazzaa says:

    Sorry Meryl, I know you mean well, but you rather inadequate disclaimer is not featured prominenty as requested by the HCCC, but is hidden away behind a link.

    Not only that, as the HCCC found, your information on immunisation in some places is dreadfully inaccurate, and in other places, just plain wrong.

    You are totally unqulified to speak on this subjct, and any careful analysis of your writings leaves any objective reader with the conclusion that the author Jane McCredie, the HCCC, the AMA, and, have all got it right: you just do not know what you are talking about.

  5. fairgo says:

    a small correction to the above comment – the disclaimer is in the section relating to the Living Wisdom magazine, not the AVN.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Where is the disclaimer Meryl? Is it easy to find and displayed on the home page? No. It is hidden in a link that requires the viewer to visit another page, then read through 3 paragraphs before finally finding one sentence hidden amongst many other disclaimers that essential reveal you are not liable for anything that occurs if people believe your website. I have looked at your website and I think Jane was right on the money. Don’t worry though, we’ll keep vaccinating our children so yours don’t get sick.

  7. CC says:

    With you all the way Meryl. If Jane Mcredie and other journalists/writers want to be taken seriously they need to thoroughly research their subject.

  8. Sniper says:

    I personally have seen 14 people afflicted by vaccine preventable disease. Three of these died , one was a 7 week old baby who contracted Pertusis from the neighbors who did not believe in vaccination. I was very distressing to watch this small infant struggle and suffer and eventually languish and succumb just because the neighbors have “Beliefs”. They feel courageous about defending their beliefs. They call themselves Passionate. Either way they are ignorant and dangerous.

  9. shotinfo says:

    If Jane McCredie had simply taken the time to look at the AVN’s website before writing this article, she would have seen that we already have a disclaimer (that has been there for years) stating that, “If medical advice is required the services of a competent professional should be sought. “

    Obviously, she did not take this simple step or she would not have claimed that, “It’s hard to imagine the AVN will ever voluntarily recommend concerned parents seek medical advice.” when we already do.

    This is just one of many errors Ms McCredie has made in this piece.

    Though, as Ms McCredie states, it would be dangerous to shout fire in a crowded theatre if no fire existed, seeing the fire while remaining silent is even worse.

    The Australian Vaccination Network invites everyone to look at our website and to make up their own mind about the calibre and accuracy of our information. We also invite readers to visit our page where you can view the HCCC complaints and our responses –

    I do hope that the MJA insight will have the decency to post this comment – especially since they did not feel it was necessary to contact someone they were writing untruths about before publishing them.

    Meryl Dorey
    Australian Vaccination Network
    Investigate Before You Vaccinate

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