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On the page in the Millenium Project web site devoted to the anti-vaccination liars, I say that "a special place should be reserved in Hell for people who want to kill or maim children by preventing them from receiving vaccinations". On Thursday, 24 October, 2002, Richard Saunders from the Australian Skeptics and I attended a seminar organised by the Australian Vaccination Network, and I came away thinking that not only has that special place been reserved for them, but that they have already moved in.
The night started by ridiculing the medical experts who had been invited to speak in favour of vaccination but didn't turn up. I am not sure when they would have been able to say anything, as there were only two-and-a-half hours available for the entire program and there were six anti-vaccination speakers already scheduled, plus housekeeping, introductions and a question session. Professor John Dwyer from the University of New South Wales wrote a declining letter which suggested that vaccination might just have been the most significant advance ever in medical science. This got a good laugh when it was read out.
The content of the speeches was much as I had expected, particularly as I knew the speakers. The first speaker's current obsession is meningococcal disease, and she gave us the usual claptrap about how it is not a problem (only six deaths so far this year in New South Wales) and how the vaccine that the government is going to use has not been tested. The second speaker was a medical doctor who believes that doctors kill people and that children should be allowed to eat dirt (he was pleased that his daughter had picked up a dummy in the street and had put it in her mouth). He also provided a fraudulent interpretation of some Australian disease statistics. The third speaker was also a medical doctor, although she runs a woo-woo clinic rather than a conventional general practice like the previous speaker. She told us all about leaky guts and autism. (In a bizarre example of coincidence, I had to go to the dentist the next day and I found that my dentist's office is two doors away from this quack's place. The dentist wondered why I was gagging even before I got in the chair.)
The fourth speaker was yet another medical doctor - the infamous Archie Kalokerinos. Dr Kalokerinos told us that massive doses of vitamin C would cure just about every ailment, and that vaccination was a deliberate process of genocide carried out under the auspices of the World Health Organization and the Save the Children Fund. He went on to say that these two groups "put Hitler and Stalin in the shade" when it came to deliberate and intentional mass killings. He bases his claims on the idea that needles are reused in order to deliberately spread AIDS. Facts are strangers to anti-vaccinators, which is why he didn't bother to mention that UNICEF (who supply about 400 million vaccination kits a year) haven't issued a reusable syringe since January 2001, and the total abolition of the practice (expected in 2003) is just about top of the list in the WHO's vaccine safety program. It is extremely disturbing to see how apparently calm and normal a man as insane as Kalokerinos can appear to be.
Don't believe that a doctor could say this? Listen to him.
A report of the seminar put out the next day by the President of the Australian Vaccination Network included the words "One strange thing is that Ratbags was there. He sat in the front row with his arms folded across his belly the whole time and he had a few of the rat-baguettes with him too (sort of like the mouseketeers only evil). They waited until Archie Kalokerinos had finished speaking (he was the last doctor to speak) and then, they all got up and walked out without hearing the final two speakers. I guess they figures (sic) that we non-doctors couldn't possibly say anything worth hearing anyway?" Facts being what they are, the truth is that I was in about the twelfth row (next to a lady in a face mask who was warning everyone about the dangers of chemtrails), and the one person who came with me asked one of the questions in the Q&A at the end of the night. I don't know who the people were who left after Dr Kalokerinos finished his rant, but perhaps they were offended by his belittling of the Holocaust or maybe they just had sensitive stomachs and wanted to get out before vomiting.
I published a report of the night on my web site and in several Internet forums where the anti-vaccinators hang out, and my comments about this "sitting in the front and leaving early" statement produced an interesting result. I was initially attacked for being egotistical and expecting everyone to know who I was. I replied that my comment was really about the bizarre leap of non-logic that took two isolated facts - I was known to have been in the room (I had signed a list that had been passed around) and someone left early - and from them had derived the conclusion that I was the person who had left. Someone then told me that she had recognised me on the night (she had been seated right behind me) and had told the person who made the "he left early" statement about me. This was supposed to make things better, but what it told me was that the person who announced the next day that I had been sitting in the front row had known at the time that this was not me. Telling people that it was me was not a case of very poor inference creation but a deliberately untrue statement. It is what the rest us call "lying". Why was I not surprised?
The fifth speaker announced the alarming news that the makers of the vaccine to be used in the government's meningococcal vaccination campaign had been given special permission to omit some things from the bottle labels. The manufacturer of this particular vaccine was not the same as the one that was selling untested vaccines, as reported by the first speaker. (A third company has applied to be able to supply some of the vaccine doses needed in 2003. I would assume that an appropriate complaint will be fabricated as soon as approval is announced.) The speaker also warned us of the dangers of mercury in vaccines which no longer have mercury in them. Still, what are facts when there are vaccines to be stopped?
This speaker also displayed a comic strip by murderer Alan Yurko, which tested even my gag reflex. (Alan Yurko is in prison for life in Florida, convicted of first degree, premeditated murder for beating a ten-week-old child to death. He has been adopted by the anti-vaccinators because they believe that they can use Shaken Baby Syndrome as another vaccine threat. Yurko has been officially declared a hero by the International Chiropractors Association (yes, they actually used the word "hero"), and members of several anti-vaccine mailing lists were asked to declare 29 November a "Yurko Day of Prayer". Nobody was asked to pray for the boy he killed, but as one of them said to me "the child is dead, there is no reason to pray for him".)
The final speaker was a herbalist and naturopath who told us about witchcraft and voodoo potions. She mentioned homeopathic alternatives to vaccination, as if such things really existed. A question session followed, and Richard asked a question about homeopathic vaccines which produced an interesting result. The woo-woo medical doctor jumped in to answer, and what she said was almost rational. She said that homeopathy had nothing to do with vaccination and that these preparations couldn't be expected to offer much protection. She even agreed that it was good that someone had taken action over obviously false claims. While she was saying this, the body language of the herbalist who had been very recently telling us how good these things were suggested that she was very unhappy with what she was hearing. Solidarity, however, prevented her from saying anything. Apparently, Richard's question caused alarm bells to ring (his was the only real question, the rest were of the "Can I agree with you?" variety), but when the organising committee were told by the person sitting behind us that he had been with me everything became clear to them.
I fully expected to be accosted by a three-headed dog when we tried to leave at the end of the night, but Cerberus was nowhere in sight. We sought relief and sanctuary in the nearby Illawarra Catholic Club, where we were able to get a couple of nerve-calming beers. Richard tried to put a dollar in a poker machine but it kept giving him his money back. I don't know whether this was because the place has rules against taking gambling money from atheists, but I suspect that the ultimate boss of the place had decided that we had suffered enough for one night and wanted to spare us from placing losing wagers.
My mention of the club was another matter which cause much discussion in anti-vaccination circles when I issued my story about the night. (Nobody wanted to discuss anything substantive with me, just where I was sitting and where I had a drink afterwards.) The club comments ranged from someone who wondered why an atheist would talk about Hell, to someone who thought that the $5 we spent on two beers would have been better spent saving some children somewhere, to someone who tried to turn the issue into a discussion of paedophile priests (the Illawarra Catholic Club, being a sort of mini-casino, probably has little to do with the theological or administration aspects of the church). Someone simply commented that the fact that I was a Catholic explained everything!
It was tragic to sit in that hall with about 350 people, many of them with small children or obviously expecting to have small children shortly, and watch those people being lied to about health risks for their children. We had a health scare in Sydney a little while back when some infectious organisms were found in the water supply, but the threat to public health from a lessening of vaccination rates is far greater than anything that cryptospridium or giardia can offer. I'm just old enough to remember polio (which will be eradicated forever from the world in the next two or three years), and my children have not had to face measles or mumps or diphtheria or pertussis or any other of the diseases which can so easily and safely be prevented by vaccination. The people on stage that night would have us back in a time where these were daily threats. With today's air travel, nowhere is more than twenty-four hours from anywhere else, so an unvaccinated population is under constant threat of infection and even epidemic.
One of the lies told by the anti-vaccinators is that they just want to see safe vaccines, that they are not opposed to vaccines per se, that they just want to see parents making informed choices. I am writing this on World AIDS Day which is intended to focus the world's attention on a disease which has 15,000 new infections every day, but there has already been at least one conference run by a major anti-vaccination organisation to look at ways of preventing the development of an AIDS vaccine. Not to try to have a safer vaccine, but to stop there being any vaccine at all. Two weeks ago initial research was announced that suggested that a vaccine that might prevent cervical cancer could be developed in the next few years. Cervical cancer is the second most lethal cancer for women in the world (and the leading cancer killer of women in developing countries), but attacks on the research started on the very day that it was announced. There were 2800 people killed in the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. This is almost exactly the same number of children who die every day of the year from measles, a vaccine preventable disease, but I have been told that these children do not matter, and one of the speakers at Hurstville is on record as saying that no vaccine against measles was ever needed because the disease is "benign".
As skeptics, we should all try to be objective, to seek the evidence. I admit that I went to that meeting at Hurstville with preconceived opinions. Nothing I saw or heard on that night did anything other than to reinforce my opinion that the anti-vaccinators are the most perverted and dangerous of all the anti-medicine campaigners. They defy logic, they defy science, they ignore evidence. It is like some bizarre religious cult, but one whose objective is a return to the pestilence and death of the middle ages. I've read about those times, and I don't want my children, or anyone else's, to live there.