Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Balance Returning to Vaccination Information

By Rachael Dunlop

The Australian Vaccination Network’s status as a charitable organisation has been stripped and its web of half-truths and outright lies damned by authorities.

One of Australia’s most pernicious anti-vaccine groups has had its charity licence confiscated and been forced to change its name. The NSW government instructed the name change from The Australian Vaccination Network to The Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network following a directive to find a name that better reflects its anti-vaccination views. The Network surrendered its licence after reportedly being issued with a “show cause” notice requiring it to respond in writing about why its authority to fundraise should not be revoked.

Which begs the question: why was an organisation that continues to support the long-debunked myth of a link between vaccines and autism, and claims that childhood illnesses are a right of passage, ever issued with a charity licence to begin with? Quite apart from the fact that after raising more than $2 million over 15 years, the AVN appears to have passed on a measly $408 to charitable purposes, with more than 80% of raised funds going back to them in the form of “expenses”.

The AV-SN hasn’t had a lot of luck with the authorities over recent years. It’s been in and out of the courts since 2009, when it challenged the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) over a public warning issued against it. The HCCC investigated the AVN's website and found that it “provides information that is solely anti-vaccination… incorrect and misleading, (and) quotes selectively from research to suggest that vaccination may be dangerous”. This resulted in an order to post a disclaimer warning visitors of its anti-vaccine stance. When the Network refused, the public warning was published.

The AV-SN famously went on to win the case against the HCCC on a technicality, but the NSW government wasn’t done yet. Last year it passed new legislation to correct the technicality and immediately commenced a fresh investigation, of which the draft findings were recently released. Consistent with last time they are scathing, with directives to “remove and keep permanently removed,” such as “remove and keep permanently removed the misleading information about the link between mercury and autism”.

The AV-SN now has an opportunity to respond to the report, and this is where the hilarity begins. So far the Network has published eight responses on its website, all of which consist of various levels of hubris, such as: “We confirm our earlier assertion that your office lacks the capacity to carry out this investigation with competence and/or integrity”. One wonders what chatter this generates around the HCCC water cooler every Monday!

Based on the general arrogance of the responses and knowing that the AV-SN generally considers itself above the law, I’m guessing we won't be seeing it “remove and keep permanently removed” information from its site anytime soon (quite apart from the fact that there would be virtually nothing left). It seems the HCCC thinks so too, having already written a new public warning describing the AV-SN as “engendering fear and alarm”.

While there’s no question these developments are a blow to the AV-SN, the most important impact of the campaign to expose its scaremongering, half-truths and outright lies surely has to be the change in the way the mainstream media treats it. As recently as 2010, Meryl Dorey was the go-to person for comment on vaccination, and referred to in some places as “Australia’s leading expert on vaccination”. She was plonked next to paediatricians and immunologists and asked for her “reckons”, a process that lent her undue legitimacy. Thanks to the concerted efforts of some people, particularly the folks at Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (find them on Facebook), this now happens much less.

Technically, this style of reporting is known as false balance – ‘“balance” because the journalist is attempting to seek “both sides of the story” and “false” because there are not two equally valid sides to vaccine science. There’s evidence that supports the safety and efficacy of vaccines (>95%) and there’s conspiracy theorists who spread fear (<5%), so it makes no sense to give these conflicting arguments equal time in a news story. Just as I wouldn’t interview an astronaut who walked on the Moon and then ask a Moon landing denier for their “reckons”.

False balance is particularly specious when it comes to vaccination as we now have evidence that purely anti-vaccine stories are less damaging (with respect to people deciding whether to vaccinate or not) than reports that “show both sides”. It’s hypothesised that this is because people perceive there to be genuine discourse among experts. Yet when it comes to vaccine science this is overwhelmingly not the case.

I congratulate the media on taking this responsible stance because we must be diligent when it comes to public health, in particular kids and babies. Vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and pertussis are re-emerging, and vaccine denial is contributing to this. There is no place for lies in public health, and I hope that soon we will see the AV-SN relegated to the “deniers” corner where they well and truly belong.

Rachael Dunlop is a Sydney-based cell biologist working in neurodegeneration. She is a Vice-President of Australian Skeptics Inc. and an administrator of the Stop the AVN Facebook page. Follow her on Twitter @DrRachie.