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02/11/2012 / Jo Alabaster

Don’t Ask the AVN, See Your GP

There have been a couple of rather alarming posts on the Australian (anti-)Vaccination Network’s Facebook wall recently, from parents who suspect that their child has been infected with or exposed to a vaccine preventable disease.

Here is the first, in which a parent suspects that her son may have measles:

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My immediate reaction upon reading this was to urge the poster to get their son to a doctor to have the diagnosis confirmed and appropriate treatment suggested, but as I am not welcome on the AVN’s Facebook page, I had to watch from the sidelines as the following unfolded.

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The AVN admins downplay the seriousness of measles, do not urge Peta R to see a doctor and accuse those commenters who encourage Peta R to seek proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment of fear mongering.

Meryl Dorey herself advises Peta R to not panic, but “go with it – celebrate the fact that if he has measles, he will never get it again and his immune system will be better for it.”

This is at least logically consistent on one level – Meryl truly does seem to believe that measles is not only benign, but a “Gift from the Goddess” (see this excellent post on Losing in the Lucky Country outlining Meryl’s views on measles). I’ll also point out again that the AVN sells a delightful children’s book titled “Melanie’s Marvellous Measles”, which has been written about rather eloquently on PEI Curmudgeon’s Blog.

Unfortunately, as is generally the case on information regarding vaccine preventable diseases, the AVN have it wrong. Measles causes people to feel very ill, up to one third of people with measles develop complications (such as ear infections, diarrhoea and pneumonia), around one in a thousand develop encephalitis (source: NSW Health Measles Fact Sheet).

While it is true that many cases of measles cause no long term damage, this is not a safe assumption to make of all cases of measles, particularly when no medical professional has assessed the severity of the symptoms, discussed management with the caregivers and prescribed a treatment plan.

Taking a step back though, the above advice was being provided without a confirmed diagnosis of measles. Peta R’s son could have had a different viral rash, or something else entirely.

Fortunately, Peta R did take her son to the doctor and it was confirmed that he did not have measles. I am thankful that she made the decision to seek expert assessment and that her son was okay – following the AVN’s advice, this story could have had a much more distressing conclusion.

The comments on this thread continued (screenshots of full thread are available here – please see ‘Further Reading’ for information on ‘homeopathic immunisation’), when somebody noticed that there was discussion on Stop the AVN’s Facebook page on the ethics and legality of the advice being provided by the AVN to Peta R, and whether it was worthwhile reporting to the HCCC. In response to this, one of the AVN’s admins posted the following:

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Here, courageous anonymous AVN admin RR makes light of SAVN’s concerns that a child’s life may be put at risk due to their negligent advice to Peta R.

The full thread is viewable here (and in response to the anti-fluoride comments, here is an excellent article on concerns about the safety of fluoridated drinking water by Science of Mom)

The inappropriateness of comparing a small child with a suspected case of measles with RR’s imaginary headache aside, (which, incidentally, I’d advise she saw a doctor about if it persisted, was accompanied by unusual symptoms or concerned her at all), this seems to suggest that the AVN don’t feel that they have any more weight behind their advice than somebody’s layperson neighbour. Perhaps they don’t – they certainly lack the expertise and standards of ethical conduct to be giving health advice. The problem though, is that the AVN represent themselves as having expertise in the fields of healthcare and vaccination. They are recognised by the HCCC as a Health Service Provider and they have been granted permission to fundraise by the OLGR as an organisation who provide educational services. As such, I think that it is fair to expect them to conduct themselves with the responsibility that that entails – which, in this case, should have been to urge Peta R to take her child to a doctor.

Here is the second recent instance of a parent asking the AVN about her child’s health. She is certain that her partner has whooping cough and they have an unimmunised four month old infant who has been exposed. This time, the parent has worded her post so that she is not specifically asking for advice on her child’s case – she requests anecdotes from people who have experienced similar situations.

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This one is chilling.

I noticed that shortly after this was posted, Facebook was saying that one comment had been made, but none were visible. This is generally a sign that a comment has been deleted, which suggests that an AVN admin was present to delete a comment, but chose not to answer Maree P’s question.

An hour and a half later, this reply appeared, from a newly created Facebook account (suggesting that Charlotte J is not one of the AVN’s regulars, or is posting from a pseudonymous account):

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This advice is sensible – and the suggestion that Maree P take her child to a doctor is precisely what the AVN should have said instead of deleting a comment and remaining silent. Mercifully, this comment seemed to have been made after the admins had logged off for the night, so it remained undeleted and without the AVN’s derision until morning.

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Tristan W is a regular commenter on both the AVN’s Facebook page and blog. I don’t know whether he assumed that Charlotte J was associated with a skeptic group or was just skeptical of the AVN’s position on vaccines and healthcare, but he often uses the term ‘skeptic’ as one of derision (as do many core AVN members). I’ve never understood it – to my mind, to be anti-skeptic is to be against critical thought and analysis and the pursuit of truth.

The suggestion that somebody stating that an unimmunised infant who has been exposed to whooping cough is in danger and that the parents should seek medical advice is fear-mongering and causing undue panic is, I believe, inaccurate. There are few non-confronting ways to tell a parent that their child needs to be assessed by a doctor as soon as possible, Charlotte J’s plea was emotive but not hysterical, nor an overreaction to the situation described. If it needs to be stated, whooping cough is an incredibly dangerous illness, particularly to very young babies. Whooping cough can kill one in 200 babies who catch it, between 2008 and 2012 eight precious babies have died in Australia (anecdotally, I know of another tragic loss since the article linked to was written).

I find it quite bizarre that the AVN and its supporters are so ready to call those who disagree with their dismissive attitude toward obtaining proper diagnosis though comprehensive clinical assessment from a qualified health care professional fear-mongers and panic merchants, given their own propensity to disseminate rather alarmist (and highly inaccurate) claims about vaccines causing autism, cancer and death. Indeed, there are alarmist and inaccurate claims made by Meryl Dorey in the above comments regarding antibiotic use.

Meryl’s position on whooping cough seems to be shifting – she now concedes that it can be fatal, an assertion at odds with her previous infamous statement made in April 2009, “You didn’t die from it 30 years ago and you’re not going to die from it now.” (the context of this quote is outlined in this post on The Skeptic’s Book of Pooh Pooh, and its veracity is examined here on A Drunken Madman’s blog). Incidences of death due to whooping cough are something Meryl has struggled with repeatedly in the past – Reasonable Hank demonstrates further inconsistencies with Meryl’s statements here.

In the comments above, Frankie M makes some very reasonable and appropriate points and is attacked. It makes me wonder how many of the AVN’s supporters (or potential supporters) are criticised and banned for questioning the position and responses of the AVN.

Credit where it is due though, Meryl did advise Maree P to take her child to a GP, albeit not with much urgency. I very much hope that Maree P did see a doctor and that her child managed not to contract whooping cough. This thread was deleted from the AVN’s page, so I have no further news.

I’ll wind up this post with a response to a comment on admin RR’s thread by Peta R:

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Indeed, our opinions are our own – some hold a lot more weight than others though; personally, I’m very comfortable with trusting the experts’ opinions when it comes to matters too complicated for non-experts to adequately assess (see: Further Reading).

As for why anyone would pour such time and energy into something they disagree with – to put it very simply, it is because the AVN can influence parents to put their (and others’) children’s lives at risk by refusing vaccinations. Tragically, I imagine that many of the AVN’s core members and supporters feel the same way – that they too are fighting to protect the safety and wellbeing of children. Some of their intent is perhaps noble. Sadly, this has no bearing on the fact that they are wrong – wrong about the facts surrounding vaccine preventable diseases and, by my estimation, wrong in their belief that it is ethically acceptable to downplay the importance of seeking professional medical advice when a child is suspected of having or has been exposed to a harmful and potentially lethal disease.

It is unfortunate that anybody would consider the AVN to be an appropriate source of advice and information when their child is sick. While the AVN represent themselves as knowledgeable on matters of health and vaccine preventable diseases (despite their lack of training, association with any regulatory body or adherence to an ethical code of conduct), they assume a great responsibility to those who seek their advice. In downplaying the seriousness of vaccine preventable diseases and being dismissive of the importance of seeking the opinion of medical professionals, it is easy to imagine the AVN finding themselves responsible for some very tragic consequences in the future. The AVN must be held to account.

If you would like to become involved or show your support for those opposing the AVN’s conduct, you are welcome to visit and join Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network on Facebook.

Update: As a result of complaints regarding the AVN’s conduct outlined in this post, the AVN have issued a Quack Miranda Warning. I have written about it here.

Update: Here is another case of the AVN failing to urge the caregiver of a sick child to take them to hospital.

Further Reading:

Health Information and Health Products Online Fact Sheet – Better Health Channel

Measles Fact Sheet – Better Health Channel

Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Fact Sheet – Better Health Channel

Homeopathic Vaccine Regulation – La Trobe University News

Homeopathy and Vaccination Fact Sheet – National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance

No, You’re Not Entitled to Your Opinion – a brilliant article by Patrick Stokes on the false equivalence between experts and non-experts promoted by giving all opinions equal merit. Seriously, if you’ve not read it, do. The comments are fascinating and there are special guest appearances by Meryl Dorey and other prominent AVN supporters.

An Open Letter from Toni and David McCaffery – the link that Charlotte J posted, two amazing parents raising awareness of the dangers of whooping cough after losing their precious daughter Dana.

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