Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The Health Care Complaints Commission has investigated two complaints about the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), a non-profit organisation registered in New South Wales that provides information about vaccination. The complaints alleged that the AVN provides incorrect and misleading information about vaccination.

The Commission’s investigation of the complaints focussed on the material presented by the AVN on its website

The Commission’s investigation established that the AVN website:
  • provides information that is solely anti-vaccination
  • contains information that is incorrect and misleading
  • quotes selectively from research to suggest that vaccination may be dangerous.

On this basis, the Commission recommended to the AVN that it should include a statement in a prominent position on its website to the following effect:
  • The AVN’s purpose is to provide information against vaccination, in order to balance what it believes is the substantial amount of pro-vaccination information available elsewhere.
  • The information provided by the AVN should not be read as medical advice.
  • The decision about whether or not to vaccinate should be made in consultation with a health care provider.

The Commission recognises that it is important for there to be debate on the issue of vaccination. However, the AVN provides information that is inaccurate and misleading.

The AVN’s failure to include a notice on its website of the nature recommended by the Commission may result in members of the public making improperly informed decisions about whether or not to vaccinate, and therefore poses a risk to public health and safety.

Hearing some of the fallout over this story, it's interesting that the AVN keeps claiming it is not an anti-vaccination site. One of the claims Meryl Dorey made was that they seek to provide a balance of information to counteract the one-sided information stream from doctors and the government. In other words they are creating informed choices by providing the information that would otherwise be unavailable.

On the face of it, that sounds like a reasonable position. We want people to be as informed as possible and that includes taking negative information. If doctors and the government are being misleading then they should be called out.

But that's not what's happening here. Perhaps that's how Meryl Dorey rationalises what she's doing and it might even make for a good media sound-byte, but it's hard to pretend that's what's happening when one is doing so by presenting misleading information.

The point of contention with putting the warning up from the HCCC was that it labelled the AVN as "anti-vaccination" which the AVN insists that it isn't[1]. Yet what else can one describe the position of the organisation as? They give misleading information about vaccinations and promote the dangers of doing so, even to the point of harassing the parents who lost a young child to a vaccine-preventable disease!

If the government and doctors are hiding information about the risks of vaccines then there's reason to make that information available. But if that's to be done, it has to be done in an honest manner, to present the contradicting information fairly. But to cherry-pick facts, to provide false and misleading information and especially to do so with no context is going to be anything but informative. It's disinformation, not helping people make an informed choice but reducing the capacity to.

Providing someone with false information doesn't help informed consent, it makes someone less informed. If the AVN wants to argue that it isn't anti-vaccine then it should be providing the information in as accurate and in as contextual manner as possible. But of course they won't do that, instead just pretending that doctors and the government is hiding negative information so they keep their anti-vaccine agenda.

The result of this is vaccine-preventable illnesses will make a return and children will die. Not just those who aren't vaccinated (not that a child should be blamed for a parent's actions) but those who are too young and a small percentage of those who are vaccinated. The loss of herd immunity puts more at risk than just those who free-load off the rest of the herd.

In all this it is often forgotten that the reason we aren't seeing outbreaks of polio or smallpox is because vaccines are incredibly effective. Vaccination eradicated smallpox![2] This was a virus that killed up to half a billion people in the 20th century alone! And it was eradicated in our society. And how many polio cases do we hear about in Australia now? It's gone because of vaccines.

I'm sure that the people at the AVN and its supporters don't want children to come to harm, but the inevitable consequence of their position is that many children will get sick and some of those will die from illnesses that were otherwise preventable through herd immunity. In the face of knowledge on vaccines, for the people of the AVN to continue their ideological struggle which puts parents who are also concerned for the welfare of their children off vaccinating means that they have blood on their hands.

Any public health decision should be done in the face of knowledge, to act out of ignorance is not making an informed choice. When it comes to vaccines we can see the health benefits that come with it, and the problems associated with the reduction of herd immunity. To ignore such evidence and spread misinformation about vaccinates not only puts the children of those parents at risk but puts society at risk.

If the AVN wants to be a health watchdog then it should try to be objective as possible, so even if they (the members) personally believe that vaccines are harmful they can only be informative through objectivity. If vaccines are truly harmful then present the evidence and let people put their own narrative over it. To provide a narrative then cherry-pick evidence to support that is only going to lead to the suffering and deaths of more children. It's ideology, not science!

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