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Science and public health

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Richard Di Natale 2 Jul 2013

A message from Richard

Recently in Parliament, I sponsored a motion condemning the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN). The motion was supported by all sides of Parliament, noted low vaccination rates in some parts of Australia, and called on the AVN to disband and cease its campaign against vaccines. I believe that by supporting my motion, the Senate sent a clear and strong message against the AVN's campaign of misinformation around vaccines, a campaign lacking any scientific or medical basis whatsoever. Overwhelming scientific evidence tells us that immunisation is one of the most effective public health measures ever introduced, saving millions of lives every year.

We have been overwhelmed by the positive response to our motion from members of the community, from constituents, and from members of the scientific and medical community. I would like to thank all of you who have made your voice heard. Vaccinating our kids is too important an issue to ignore.

I understand that a small minority still hold concerns about vaccination. This note explains a little more about our position.

Why are the Greens making a stand on this issue?

The Greens care about people, and as a doctor and public health specialist I will always stand up for evidence-based public health policies that put people first.

Unfortunately recent times have seen broader attacks on science and the scientific method, whether it be by vested interests such as the fossil fuel or tobacco industries, or by groups such as the Australian Vaccination Network.

Whilst we acknowledge that there are diverse opinions within the community surrounding the issue of vaccination, the evidence is unequivocal that universal vaccination is in the interests of public health. As a medical doctor and public health specialist who has worked in the developing world and seen the effects of not vaccinating first-hand, I am and will remain a strong advocate for vaccination.

The Australian Greens are strong supporters of science and we believe that the scientific method is one of the most powerful tools we have to advance the human condition. Science has given us the tools to respond to global pandemics and live longer and healthier lives. Science has a hugely important role to play in informing public policy, especially health policy.

Science advances knowledge through the scientific method, which involves testing hypothesis through rigorously designed studies and subjecting the results to peer review through scientific publications. The end result of that process is a scientific consensus and the gaining of knowledge.

When someone disputes an established scientific principle or scientific consensus (whether it be on climate change, wind turbine sickness, vaccines or any other topic) it is their responsibility to demonstrate why the consensus is wrong, not for others to defend it. The way that scientists who want to challenge the status quo approach this issue is to put forward alternative studies that demonstrate flaws with the established consensus and to subject them to peer review. That is the manner in which scientific progress is made. Everyone has the right to hold an alternative view, but if they are unable to verify that view using the scientific method it is not scientifically valid. As someone trained in a scientific discipline I understand that this approach is not perfect, but it's by far the best tool available to us in understanding issues such as this.

Why does this motion target the AVN?

The AVN has made a number of claims about connections between vaccines and autism, SIDS and cancer. These links have been comprehensively debunked in a number of scientific papers and the lack of any such link is now an established scientific principle. As such, the onus is on individuals who disagree to use science (i.e. subject their theories to peer reviewed journals) to prove otherwise. To date there is not one article published in a reputable scientific journal anywhere in the world that demonstrates such a link. There is however good evidence to demonstrate that vaccines have saved millions of lives.

While some people cite specific papers that claim a connection between vaccines and autism, the methodology in these papers is almost always flawed so they do not satisfy the criteria for publication in a reputable peer reviewed journal. To insist that such papers are valid, is to dispute the scientific method itself.

Does this motion affect free speech?

I am also a fierce defender of free speech. However it is important to remember that there are limits to free speech. For example we have racial vilification laws because we understand the damage that racism causes. Furthermore, because of the potential for harm we have strict rules about misleading medical claims that regulate what can be said about medicines and other therapeutic interventions. The Therapeutic Goods Authority requires people who promote and advertise specific products to produce valid evidence to support their claims, and they have recently taken action against the AVN for failing to do this.

Businesses are not allowed to make false or misleading claims and as a result the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission have instituted Federal Court proceedings against a business for allegedly misleading claims regarding the effectiveness of the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine. The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) requires that factual information be broadcast accurately and recently found a commercial TV station guilty of breaching its code of conduct by broadcasting Meryl Dorey's lie that "all vaccinations, in the medical literature, have been linked with the possibility of causing autism, not just the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine".

It is also worth noting that the Greens' motion did not propose any specific action to shut down the AVN, nor did it call for the introduction of compulsory vaccination. Having said this, when the AVN tell lies, and those lies result in the deaths of children, the Greens will continue to call them to account.

The Greens' position on this issue is based firmly on the best available science. Whilst we always welcome a diversity of voices, our position on matters of national and global importance from climate change to vaccination is and will continue to be informed by the best available science.

Full text of speech:

Senator DI NATALE(Victoria) (23:15): I rise to address an issue of vital importance to the health of the Australian community, the issue of vaccination. As a former doctor and public health professional, I find it hard to overstate the importance of vaccines to public health. Alongside measures such as access to clean water, sanitation and improved air quality, vaccination is one of the most successful and cost-effective public health interventions in human history. Indeed, it is hard to overstate the importance of vaccines in terms of the human suffering they have prevented. As many as half a billion people died from smallpox in the 20th century. This century, the death toll is zero. That is because a program of vaccination completely eradicated smallpox by 1979. The eradication of smallpox is one of the greatest achievements of science but just one example of what this life-saving technology has achieved for humankind.

Australia in particular is a vaccination success story. The first vaccine was used here as far back as 1804, which was a smallpox vaccine. Since then, more and more vaccines have become routinely used. Tetanus, diphtheria and polio were early successes. We have had a measles vaccine since 1969 and a mumps vaccine since 1981. All of these potentially life-threatening conditions are now rare, but not unheard of, in this country. Children born in Australia today are protected from many more diseases, from chickenpox to human papillomavirus, thanks to safe and affordable vaccines.

In other countries, families are still suffering the costs of many of these preventable diseases. Everyone should have the same protection that Australian children do. That is why it is so important that Australia continues to provide generous support to organisations such as the GAVI Alliance, which are committed to saving the lives of the millions of children in developing countries who lack access to the vaccines we take for granted.

Indeed, vaccination has been such a success in Australia that a strange thing has happened. We have started to forget what it is like to suffer from the preventable infections we fought so hard to conquer. Few parents today have had the experience of watching a child with measles develop complications that become a life-threatening condition. We are spared the horror of watching a child with whooping cough turn blue and suffer a seizure from a coughing fit. We no longer encounter people on a daily basis whose limbs have been twisted by paralytic poliomyelitis. As these horrors have faded from daily life, we should be celebrating the life-saving innovation that has saved us and our kids from death and disease. Instead, there are people who now question the usefulness of vaccination itself.

The AVN, the Australian Vaccination Network—misleadingly named—founded in 1994, have styled themselves as providers of vaccine information. In fact, their mission is to deter parents from getting their children vaccinated. They accomplish their mission by sowing fear and doubt in the minds of parents who have young kids, and by dressing it up in the language of science. They pretend to be neutral providers of information to allow parents to make a choice, but in reality they are fiercely anti vaccine.

The claims made by the AVN, and particularly by their founder, Ms Meryl Dorey, beggar belief. Despite being corrected numerous times by health professionals, scientists and so on, they continue to propagate outright myths about vaccines and their safety. They say that the MMR vaccine causes autism, a claim they know has been thoroughly and comprehensively debunked. They claim links between vaccines and sudden infant death syndrome. They claim HPV does not cause cancer but that vaccines do. They are on the record claiming that the vaccine against pertussis, or whooping cough, is not safe and has not been tested. The list goes on.

As well as making false claims about vaccines, Ms Dorey and the AVN make even more ludicrous claims about the diseases they were designed to prevent. They dispute the harms of dangerous childhood diseases in order to downplay the benefits of a vaccine. One especially preposterous example is the claim that measles is beneficial to children, making them more robust and leading to growth spurts. Ms Dorey has claimed that the word measles in Sanskrit means 'gift from a goddess' and has publicised a book called Melanie's Marvellous Measles that downplays the dangers of this disease. Mr President, as a doctor I can inform the Senate that measles is not a magical gift from Mother Nature. It is a virus that damages the human body and has the potential for serious and sometimes fatal complications. In 2001 the World Health Organization estimated 158,000 deaths from this disease. It is one of the leading causes of preventable death worldwide. To suggest that a parent should deliberately expose their child to this disease is reckless. Measles is dangerous and it can be fatal.

When concerned citizens seek to shine a light on the absurd beliefs of the AVN their reactions are telling. Doctors are called 'killers' and 'terrorists', and vaccinations are likened to rape by the AVN. To silence critics they take out apprehended violence orders. And when tragedies have occurred that put the lie to their nonsensical claims, they have gone so far as to harass grieving parents. Ms Dorey is alleged to have called Chris Kokogei, whose child died of chickenpox, and said that his child died because his child was weak. In 2009 Dana McCaffery, the daughter of David and Toni McCaffery, tragically died from a whooping cough infection. Incredibly, in response to this tragedy, Ms Dorey went as far as to contact the New South Wales director of the public health to dispute the cause of death and ask for confidential medical information. When the story became public the McCafferys had to endure months of harassment from the AVN and had to endure watching Dorey go on TV denying a child could die of whooping cough and accusing them of turning Dana into a martyr.

Fortunately, there are people in the community fighting against the harmful and bullying tactics of the AVN. In response to this disgraceful harassment of the McCafferys, the group Stop the AVN was formed with the purpose of combating the dangerous campaign. I am grateful to people like Daniel Raffaele, Peter Bowditch, Ken McLeod and others who have endured the harassment of Ms Dorey and her followers, but they do it in order to save other parents the unending pain and heartache that they themselves have had to endure.

Dana McCaffery was too young to receive the whooping cough vaccine. She died, though, because the vaccination rate in the Northern Rivers area of New South Wales where she was born is alarmingly low, at only 70 per cent. When you reach a threshold level the conditions for an outbreak occur. The virus was only able to survive and thrive in that community because vaccination rates were so low. And this is the very area where the AVN is strongest and where they are based. Such are the consequences of an irresponsible campaign based on fear and lies.

Unfortunately, I do not have time to complete the catalogue of crimes against reason and common decency perpetrated by this group. I do not know what motivates them. I imagine that they are sincere, but they are misguided, probably due to some combination of superstition, paranoia and scientific illiteracy. All of that can be forgiven, but the tactics they have used to spread their message of fear and doubt to unsuspecting parents are abhorrent.

It is true that we do enjoy freedom of speech in this country, and I am a fierce defender of that freedom. But because of the potential for harm we have rules about misleading medical claims, we regulate medicines and we regulate doctors

In the case of the AVN, that regulation is not working. For instance, among the many complaints directed against Ms Dorey and her group, the TGA ordered her to retract claims about a dodgy cancer cure called 'black salve' but she has not done that—in violation of the TGA order.

Well-meaning parents in this country who, in good faith, search for information on vaccines are confronted with AVN propaganda. Without knowing the background, it is difficult for them to weigh the credibility of this information against the medical literature. It is no wonder that some parents are deciding to delay or forgo vaccination, but that could be a fatal decision. For that reason, the AVN need to be held to account. I condemn them, the Australian Greens condemn them and the Australian Senate condemns them.

 

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