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Australasian ScienceThe times they are a changin’

That song came out in 1964, the same year that a vaccine against measles became widely available. If there was any opposition to the vaccine it had a very low profile and would have been treated with the ridicule it deserved, as was opposition to the polio vaccine a decade earlier.

Forward a few decades and there are organisations around the world with deceptive names like the National Vaccine Information Center (US), the Australian Vaccination Network and Justice, Awareness and Basic Support (UK) which exist for no other purpose than to spread untruths about the supposed dangers of vaccines. All these groups were set up by people who claimed that they had "vaccine damaged" children. The people denigrating vaccines and abusing the scientists who developed and tested them were no longer treated with scorn. Now they had become experts, called on by the media to provide "balance" whenever the topic of vaccines was discussed. When a new vaccine came onto the market television shows would compete to have these experts on to warn the public about potential dangers.

When the dangers could not be proven to exist by real scientists, people in white coats would appear to tout their maverick research showing that vaccines caused dreadful results such as autism and the signs of Shaken Baby Syndrome (one suggestion was the sound bite "Shaken Maybe Syndrome") or were responsible for the tragedy of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The classic case was the British doctor Andrew Wakefield whose 1998 paper in The Lancet (subsequently proved to be fraudulent and retracted by the journal) created a false fear of the measles vaccine, a fear which led to significantly reduced vaccination rates and the deaths of several children. (One expert described measles as "benign" and another said that infection was an essential part of a child’s development process.) Another academic expert was Professor Boyd Haley, head of the school of chemistry at a prestigious US university, who lectured widely on the dangers of a preservative used in vaccines using language which suggested that he knew less about chemistry than someone who had only read a junior high school textbook.

Often there would be real scientists appearing on programs with the vaccine deniers, but as most scientists are polite people who take more than a few second sound bite to explain facts the audience was almost always left with suspicions about vaccines. After all, which is easier to understand – "Vaccines have never been tested for safety and are only sold to make billions of dollars profit for Big Pharma. They kill." or "Clinical trials are conducted in several phases with subjects randomly assigned to treatment or placebo groups, and the results are examined using various statistical methods to detect any advantage of the vaccine. This process can cost a large amount of money and blah, blah blah …"?

Sometimes it is impossible to win a debate when the other side observes no rules.

In 2009 this changed, in Australia at least. A very brave couple went public after their five-week-old daughter died of whooping cough. (Children that age could not be vaccinated against this disease.) They used the tragedy of their daughter’s death to warn other parents about the need to ensure that they and their older children were vaccinated in order to protect those too young to get the shots themselves.

The region in which this family lived headquartered the Australian Vaccination Network and had one of the lowest rates of vaccination in the country. The publicity around the death and the revelation of the appalling resistance to vaccination in the region caused the spotlight to be turned on the AVN, and it has been downhill since then. What started as a couple of television programs showing real balance and a small group of friends creating a Facebook group called "Stop the AVN" has turned into a tsunami.

This year the NSW Parliament passed amending legislation allowing the public to report dangerous health advice, fixing a loophole that had let the AVN escape action by the Health Care Complaints Commission. At the time of writing legislation is about to be introduced changing the laws to allow operators of child care centres to refuse admission to children who are unvaccinated without a valid reason for this status. Federally, the loophole could soon be closed that allows parents to continue to receive taxation and other benefits by pretending some form of "conscientious objection". By the time you read this the NSW Office of Fair Trading will have forced the AVN to change its deceptive name.

The AVN is fighting back, mainly by trying to silence critics through the courts, not with science, but they are flapping like a fish on the bottom of a boat.

At last the good guys are winning. And children will be the safer for it.

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the July 2013 edition of Australasian Science
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