Today, a book is released in Australia that is worth knowing about, even if you don’t read the whole thing. The Panic Virus: Fear, Myth and the Vaccination Debate (Black Inc, rrp $32.95) tells the astonishing (and frightening) story of how a few individuals with no scientific or medical credibility managed to harness the media and create a public panic about vaccinations causing autism which led to a dangerous global downturn in vaccination rates.
In a brilliant story in the Fairfax press at the weekend that looks at Seth Mnookin’s new book, Julie Rowbothom writes:
The real story of a crisis of faith in arguably the greatest health breakthrough of the last century, the US author says now, is one of strong personalities fixated on their own distorted perspectives and of a media that abetted and inflated them by valuing colour and conflict ahead of scientific fact.
News came through earlier this year that the the link between autism and vaccination does not exist at all. Just in case you ever believed that it did. In fact, the doctor who authored a study linking autism and childhood vaccinations, Dr Andrew Wakefield, has been discredited and held responsible for purposefully creating fraudulent data. Yet the Australian Vaccination Network continues to put babies’ lives in danger by propagating this lie and urging people not to vaccinate their children.
MM contributor Rick Morton also has a thing or two to say about one particular force of deceptive dissent when it comes to vaccinations. He writes…..
If ever there was an award for a jumped up action group powered by hocus pocus but masquerading as a community health cause, the Australian Vaccination Network would not only bring home the title but they would mount it in the pool room.
You’ve read about them before on this website, but there have been some developments.
The British Medical Journal has come out in a stunning backhand to anti-vaccine campaigners everywhere, calling a supposedly key study in their arguments an ‘elaborate fraud’.
The 1998 study, conducted by Dr Andrew Wakefield, appeared to show an uncanny link between the prevalence of autism and the administration of vaccinations to children. It was an uncanny link, investigators have now shown, because the study was as authentic as a Rolex purchased on the side of the road in Budapest.
There are a few reasons for this.
In scientific experiments, it is very hard to demonstrate the validity of findings if you do not have a benchmark for normality first, known as the ‘control’ experiment. This is necessary in the same way that you might use your own family as a benchmark before conducting studies at social gatherings that prove the Jones’ from number 24 are batshit insane for bathing themselves in bleach. It’s science. The study conducted by Dr Wakefield, which led to a tragic boycott of the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination did not have a control.
Secondly, a good scientific experiment can be replicated. If I conduct an experiment in my house where apparently my eyes went square from watching too much television, you’re going to ask me to repeat it to prove it. This is also a good lesson for five-year-olds everywhere. If your parents tell you this, ask them for statistically valid data, their own empirical evidence and permission to conduct your own test by spending the next week watching Barney. When claims are made, other scientists peer review them. The results of Dr Wakefield’s study were never replicated.
There is also some legal mumbo jumbo about experiments not being able to be falsified. Actually, that’s a pretty easy one to grasp. In this case, in the exceedingly tiny sample of 12 children, not one of the experimental observations clicked with the official medical records of the children themselves. The fraud might have been subtler, but it’s akin to saying ‘this child has a giraffe’s head’ even though medical tests (and, presumably, flat-out observation) have shown it to be otherwise.
Some of the children in the study were not even diagnosed with autism. With such a tiny sample size to begin with, making any far-reaching claims after this fact would be similar to me attending by evening German tutorial and presuming that the entire world is German. Or wears sandals. It’s ridiculous bordering on the extreme.
But wait, here’s the kicker. Dr Wakefield was paid $650,000 for the study by a lawfirm with intentions to sue the makers of vaccines. Which brings us to the number one rule of any experiment, polling or survey: who in the world commissioned it? No I do not believe your experiment extolling the health virtues of eating numerous cookies Dr C. Ookie Monster. Also, get a better disguise.
Which brings us back to the wicker that is the Australian Vaccination Network, posing as an informative source for parents wanting to learn about immunisation. I would no sooner consult this group than I would get my car serviced by a dunnart.
This is the same group that has been ordered by the Health Care Complaints Commission to post a disclaimer on their website which, and I am paraphrasing, basically says ‘don’t believe a word we are saying’. Because you can’t.
If you want to catch the credibility of the AVN leaking like fibs through a colander, check out this interview with Tracey Spicer on 2UE here
Now, there is room for public debate about the virtues of any public health measure, but this debate has to be clearly centred on facts and clear information because this is not, as some would claim ‘a personal decision’.
A personal decision is choosing to eat a pie for lunch. Or having the hots for George Clooney (even though I just cannot see it). You see, when you start crushing on George Clooney without a shirt on, people don’t die. That’s the difference. And there have been deaths. Children, no less.
When people are dying, you can’t afford to be wrong. But even without the backing of any science – which is really all the backing that can be accepted here – the AVN are squawking about the attack against their network.
It is no small irony, of course, that the wave of community anger about the AVN is a metaphor for how the white blood cells in the human body identify an infection and swarm to get rid of it.
The AVN are a threat to public health, the wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Only now, with the debunking of a key plank in their argument, the zipper on their disguise is unravelling.
In Julie Rowbothom’s story, the author of The Panic Virus, Seth Mnookin points to the fact that the media did a great disservice to science by giving people like AVN and Jenny McCarthy so much air-time:
”The scientific method can take a while to understand because it’s not always intuitive. But anyone can understand in two seconds that you can’t draw conclusions about the population as a whole from 12 people,” he said.
Giving Wakefield’s views free rein, even alongside more mainstream findings, inevitably skewed the field, Mnookin said. Genuine balance could not be achieved if a media report included ”one person on each side when the consensus is 1000 to one”.
But then scientific balance was always secondary to the compelling story of one man against the system.
In the US a couple of years later, a former Playmate of the Month and comedy TV star, Jenny McCarthy, wrote a book about her son’s apparent autism, and her belief the preservative in the MMR jab had caused it.
On the influential Oprah show in 2007, Winfrey applauded McCarthy’s ”mommy instinct”, contrasting it favourably against an emotionally neutral but scientifically scrupulous statement by the US’s pre-eminent public health agency, the Centres for Disease Control, that ”the vast majority of science to date does not support an association between thimerosal in vaccines and autism”.
The Oprah/McCarthy episode, said Mnookin, presented McCarthy in the same mould as Wakefield – as a brave warrior against authority – and demonstrated the superior power of a photogenic individual with a wrenching personal story over painstakingly gathered epidemiological evidence to sway popular opinion.
”The people who shout loudest get listened to,” he said.
Ugh. To me, this has never been one of those issues about personal choice. I don’t buy it. You choose to use cloth nappies or bottle feed or breast feed until your child is 5? Knock yourself out. But you choose not to immunise your child and you’re making a decision that can – and probably will – affect OTHER people’s children. Their babies. A decision that could kill these babies before they’re old enough to be immunised themselves.
You call that ‘mommy instinct’? Or gross negligence?
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