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Adult Pertussis Boosters – Please Help Protect Babies from Whooping Cough

There has been some incredibly sad news this week.

Four week old Riley John Hughes from Perth, Australia, has died as a result of contracting whooping cough (pertussis).

Baby Riley John Hughes (Source: Facebook)

Baby Riley John Hughes (Source: Facebook)

I cannot fathom what Riley’s family have gone through over the past weeks, caring for their son as he was ill, then holding him as he passed away. The loss of a newborn is a tragedy I have no words for, especially to a cause that we as a society have the capacity to minimise risk for. As with other families who have lost a baby to whooping cough, my heart and all of my support are with the Hughes family, now and in the future.

The capacity that humans have to get through unimaginably awful circumstances is something which I am in awe of. In an unfathomable show of strength and caring, I have witnessed people who have undergone the most terrible losses make the decision to campaign publicly in the hope of affecting change.

Two such people, the parents of Dana McCaffery, who have campaigned extensively for the prevention of whooping cough since losing their beautiful four week old daughter in 2009, brought my attention to the profound importance of vaccination, and inspired me to join others in the fight to prevent the lives of children being placed at risk by this disease.

The parents of Riley John Hughes have also made the decision to go public with their tragic story, in the hope that Riley’s passing will promote public awareness of the danger of whooping cough.

From a post on the Light for Riley Facebook Page, set up by Riley’s family as a contact point with the public and media, Riley’s father Greg has written,

“We’re desperate to ensure the passing of our child has not been in vain and to try and assist other families who may be potentially suffering from similar circumstances,”

“Long term we’d ideally like to be the drivers of change within this country surrounding the treatment, management and long term eradication of this horrific disease.”

Riley’s family have also set up a fundraising page in conjunction with Princess Margaret Hospital, to honour their son’s memory and raise money to be used by PMH to help fight whooping cough, respiratory illness and other preventable diseases.

Following the news of Riley’s death, the NSW Minister for Health, Jillian Skinner, announced that free pertussis vaccines will be made available to pregnant women in their third trimester. Shortly after, WA Health Minister Kim Hames announced to in Parliament that a no cost pertussis vaccine program for pregnant women was being fast-tracked and will be available in two weeks’ time. This will bring New South Wales and Western Australia in line with Queensland and Victoria, who have already implemented free maternal vaccination for women in their third trimester – a strategy which provides both protection to the mother, so that the risk of her contracting whooping cough and passing it on to her newborn is greatly minimised, and protection to the newborn child through passive antibody transfer in-utero.

This is very welcome news, and I hope that the remaining Australian states and territories will follow suit (the Northern Territory offers free pertussis vaccines to parents and close family members of children under seven months old, but no maternal third trimester immunisation). Still, I believe that we need to do more to prevent the spread of whooping cough.

When my son Oscar was born in 2009, New South Wales provided free pertussis vaccines not only to parents of newborn children, but to family members who were likely to come into contact with the child during those most vulnerable few weeks. All of my son’s grandparents and his aunt took this opportunity to access the whooping cough vaccination, which provided us with protection known as the cocooning effect – surrounded by immunised people, he was less likely to be exposed to pertussis.

Sadly, this strategy was unable to completely reduce the risk of my children being exposed to whooping cough. My daughter Daphne arrived in 2011, meaning that both of my children were born during the 2009-2012 whooping cough outbreak, and I was concerned when my children were out in public – particularly as I live in an area with one of the lowest vaccination rates in Australia. Several local playgroups are attended by families who openly don’t vaccinate, and I wasn’t willing to risk my children being exposed to whooping cough; particularly before they turned six months old and had completed their course of three vaccinations (the acellular pertussis vaccine is given at two, four and six months of age, as per the Australian National Immunisation Program Schedule).

I wasn’t only concerned about unvaccinated children and low herd immunity in my local area though; many adults in Australia do not have immunity to whooping cough – be it through not knowing that pertussis vaccines are available, not being aware that adult immunity wanes after 5-10 years and that boosters are required, or not realising the potential outcomes of contracting pertussis… sustained serious illness and the risk of passing it on to others.

Indeed, Riley Hughes’ family members had been vaccinated against pertussis. This minimised his risk of exposure, but was not enough to protect him.

According to the 2009 Adult Vaccination Survey, carried out by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, only 11.5% of adults in Australia have received a pertussis booster.

The people at Tiny Hearts Paediatric First Aid have launched a petition to increase the availability of pertussis booster vaccination at low or no cost for all adults in Australia, and have suggested that people who are concerned about low adult pertussis vaccination rates contact their state health ministers – a call to action which I am firmly behind.

While I acknowledge the difficult job that those creating and implementing public health policy have, performing cost-benefit analysis to determine where limited public health money shall be spent, I strongly conclude that resources are urgently required to increase public awareness of the importance of adult pertussis boosters, and that they need to be accessible to all. Neither cost, nor lack of awareness should be barriers to preventing the unnecessary tragedy of infant death due to whooping cough.

As the importance of adult pertussis booster vaccines is not widely understood, nor are vaccines currently freely available, I would like to ask that you help spread the word – by sharing this post, the graphic above compiled by Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters, or the videos below (the first a segment from The Project, the second an interview with Toni McCaffery on Today Tonight) which outline Riley’s story and the importance of pertussis boosters for adults.

Additionally, if you have not had a pertussis booster within the last five years and are able, I hope that you will consider speaking with your GP about a booster vaccination. Not only will it provide you with protection from a nasty illness which can persist for several months, with greater numbers of adults in our society immunised against whooping cough, transmission rates will fall. Please help minimise the risk of another baby being lost to this horrible disease.

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Australian Skeptics National Convention 2013 Blogroll

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Over the weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending the 2013 Australian Skeptics National Convention, held at the CSIRO Discovery Center in Canberra. After two days of entertaining and enlightening talks (plus several fringe events), and some time spent with wonderful friends new and old, I have come away feeling very much recharged and inspired to involve myself further in grassroots skeptical activism.

The last talk of the conference on Sunday afternoon was “Looking to the future: where to now for skeptical thought”, by the illustrious Paul Willis (@Fossilcrox) of the Royal Institution of Australia (link to a recording of the talk here, thank you Ed Brown!). One of the topics he addressed was the importance of skeptical outreach via online media, noting that creation of online content is an accessible and cost-effective way in which to engage audiences. During his speech, he requested a quick show of hands to ask who in the audience had a blog – and on a whim, I quickly tweeted the suggestion of creating a blogroll for convention attendees.

Here is the beginning, a list of convention attendees who replied to my initial tweet. I would love to keep adding to this, so that we can keep in touch, keep up to date with one another’s writing and help share posts that we feel would be valuable to give more exposure to. If you would like to be added to the blogroll, please leave a comment here or get in touch via Twitter (@joalabaster) and I’ll put you on the list.

Brisbane SITP by Brisbane Skeptics in the Pub (@BrisbaneSitp)

Dan’s Journal of Skepticism by Dan Buzzard (@DanBuzzard)

Etwas Luft by Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0)

Evidence, Please by Jo Alabaster (@joalabaster)

Luke Freeman’s posts on Young Australian Skeptics by Luke Freeman (@lukefreeman)

Medicandus on The Conversation by Mick Vagg (@mickvagg)

Peter Bowditch’s Blog and The Millenium Project by Peter Bowditch (@RatbagsDotCom)

rbutr Blog and Shane’s Soapbox by Shane Greenup (@Aegist)

Really, Ed Brown by Ed Brown (@reallyedbrown)

RiAus Blog by Paul Willis (@Fossilcrox)

Skeptimanda by Amanda Devaus (@AmandaDevaus)

Skeptimite by Phil Kent (@skeptimite)

The Logical Place by Tim Harding (@mordiskeptic)

The Lone Deranger by Linley (@Lone_Deranger_)

The Sceptic’s Book of Pooh Pooh by Rachael Dunlop (@DrRachie)

There should be a sign by Shelley Stocken (@shellity)

Victorian Skeptics by… the Victorian Skeptics

I’d also like to link to some wonderful online tools mentioned by Amanda Devaus (@AmandaDevaus) in her talk “Guerrilla Skepticism: No more preaching to the choir”.

Skeptools – Tim Farley (@krelnik)’s vast compendium of skeptical software tools.

rButr – a browser plugin that tells you when the webpage you are viewing has been disputed, rebutted or contradicted elsewhere on the internet, founded by @Aegist.

Web of Trust – a browser plugin with a rating system and link notifications which aims to offer protection against online threats that only real life experience can detect, such as scams, untrustworthy links, and rogue web stores.

Skeptic Action – Simple and useful online daily tasks for skeptics!

Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia – Improving the skeptical content of Wikipedia entries.

I’d also like to include here the Eventifier summary of #auskepcon, which includes Tweets, photos and links posted over the weekend.

Finally, I’d like to note my personal thanks to Canberra Skeptics for all of their hard work in organising and running the convention, the speakers for presenting some excellent information for us all to ruminate upon and to everybody that I spoke with who was friendly and welcoming (being everyone that I interacted with). This was my first Big Skeptic Event(tm) and socially awkward and introverted as I am, I felt comfortable and valued – which I feel is testament to the wonderful sorts of people who have helped create the culture of Australian skepticism.

The (soon to be) Network Formerly Known as the AVN

Just before midnight last Friday night (the 14th of December, 2012), some rather fantastic news broke.

New South Wales Fair Trading (a state government department) had that day issued Meryl Dorey, president of the Australian Vaccination Network, with a letter stating that after investigating several complaints made to the department regarding the misleading nature of the AVN’s name, it is the Commissioner’s opinion that the use of the name ‘Australian Vaccination Network’ by a group of anti-vaccinationists is against the public interest. The Commissioner then directed the AVN to change its name. The AVN have been given until the 21st of February 2013 to lodge an application for registration of change of name. If this is not done, the department may cancel the AVN’s registration, close the AVN down and seize their assets.

The full letter is available here. Thank you to Meryl Dorey for making it available to the public.

Several newspapers have run with this story, news.com.au gave us “Anti-vaccine group ordered to change name”, which the Herald Sun ran as “Minister orders anti-vaccination group to change name”, with added quotes from the president of the AMA, while The Daily Telegraph ran the truncated “Anti-jabs lobbyists warned”. A few highlights:

NSW Fair Trading Minister Anthony Roberts fired a broadside at the AVN, saying the information it provided was a public safety issue of “life and death”.

“This is not a victimless issue, it’s about the ability to stop pain and suffering,” he said.

Mr Roberts likened the AVN’s message to sanctioning speeding.

“People do not have the freedom of choice when it comes to endangering others … it’s the equivalent of saying a bloke can speed down the road and endanger others,” he said.

Mr Roberts said he was prepared for any appeals the AVN might make.

“This is an order, it is not a request,” he said.

“The Australian Vaccination Network does not present a balanced case for vaccination, does not present medical evidence to back up its claims and therefore poses a serious risk of misleading the community,” Mr Roberts said in a statement.

NSW Fair Trading Assistant Commissioner for Compliance and Enforcement Robert Vellar says the AVN’s name had misled parents seeking information.

“People are being confused about the true nature of the information they are being provided on the AVN website, the name is misleading,” he said.

The Northern Star, which is the local paper of the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales (which covers the town from which Meryl Dorey runs the AVN), published “Anti-vaccine group must change ‘misleading’ name. This article contains an unusual point worth noting – they attempted to contact Meryl Dorey for a statement, but she did not return their calls. Given Meryl Dorey’s usual eagerness to engage with the media, this is a strange event indeed.

northernstarheadline20121217

Here is the cover sheet which will be greeting Meryl at her local newsagency this week.
Many thanks to Alison Gaylard and her friend for snapping a photo and sharing it.

Unsurprisingly, Meryl Dorey has reacted quite strongly to the letter from the NSW Fair Trading and subsequent media attention. She published a lengthy post on her blog in response, entitled “Government puts the boot into the AVN, Democracy and the Truth”.

I do not have the time to review the entire post, but some highlights include:

The Department’s open cooperation with the AMA is analogous to them responding to complaints by mining companies about Greenpeace’s name. After all, Greenpeace is not green, nor do they go around looking for peace, therefore, would the Department tell them to change their name too? How about the Cancer Council? Couldn’t someone be misled into thinking that they are FOR cancer? And the Department of Health? Don’t get me started! The Department of Ill-Health would be more accurate in my opinion.

Greenpeace is not green. Say it with me, “Greenpeace is not green”.

A wonderfully skilled wordsmith of my acquaintance, Shellity, has written a poem in response to the above quote of Meryl’s, I heartily suggest you give it (and the rest of her blog) a read: “Nominal”.

As for the statement regarding the Cancer Council, no Meryl, it is highly unlikely that anybody could be led to believe that the Cancer Council were pro-cancer. It is a reasonable assumption though, they they are an authority on the subject and that they provide trustworthy evidence-based information regarding cancer. The same cannot be said for the Australian Vaccination Network with regards to the topic of vaccination.

Later in the blog post, when discussing NSW Fair Trading, Meryl quips that they “might consider changing that name because at least in the present situation, it is extremely misleading!”. I assume that this is a little Merylese bon mot, but it is hard to be certain.

Several paragraphs on is another statement I that would like to address.

Blog overlap

The letter from the Department was handed to my daughter at approximately 11:45 AM and the first article appeared in the Australian media approximately 10 hours ago. But Skeptic blogs started to announce this information approximately one hour before the media did. How do you think they came by this information? I really do wonder. Is there a direct line of communication between the Australian Skeptics, Stop the AVN (SAVN) and government departments? There is a long and open history of collusion between media outlets and various ‘skeptics’ so it is not impossible that they heard about this letter before the AVN had even received it. Is this collusion one of the reasons why these departments have been ‘putting the boot’ into us for the last 4 years at an apparent cost of millions of dollars to the taxpayer? Is the fact that many SAVN members are actually employed by government departments – and use their government email addresses when writing about the AVN and wanting to close us down – cause for concern? I will leave those questions with you to ponder.

Going by the time on the blog post announcement on the AVN’s Facebook page, 11:40am on Saturday the 15th of December (the post itself has no timestamp), the “approximately 10 hours ago” statement refers to 1:40am the same day.

I was online when the news broke, it first hit Twitter at 11:29pm on Friday evening. This linked to a paywalled version of the Herald Sun article, “Minister orders anti-vaccination group to change its name”, which refers to the 14th of December as ‘yesterday’ and is dated 12:00AM, December 15, 2012, but evidently went live at least half an hour before midnight.

The skeptic (I find the dramatic quotes quite unnecessary) bloggers who wrote posts about the news did so over the next hour; there’s a satirical piece by Dave The Happy Singer titled “Meryl Dorey to rename the Australian Vaccination Network Stop Stop The AVN” (posted at 12:26am Saturday) and a rightfully pleased announcement from Peter Bowditch on The Millenium Project on Ratbags.Com (posted 1:15am Saturday).

Kate from Stop the AVN has made a timeline graphic here, which helps clarify.

Both Dave and Peter’s blog posts refer to the article on the Herald Sun, which went online almost an hour before Dave’s post was made, giving both bloggers adequate time to write and publish. More to the point, both blog posts directly refer to the Herald Sun article and contain no information that is not included in the newspaper article.

Where then is Meryl getting the idea that skeptic bloggers had the information before the media published it? And is it then reasonable that she extrapolate from this the notion that the Australian Skeptics, SAVN and ‘government departments’ are illicitly sharing information and that the media is also in on the act? It’s a long and rather conspiracy-laden shot, Ms Dorey.

On the subject of unsubstantiated finger pointing, the AVN’s website went down on Sunday and this was the announcement:

blog20121218_01

(The “View all 8 comments link doesn’t reveal further comments when clicked on, three have been deleted – original post here)

Fortunately, the SAVN admins are people of many talents. Here, Dave Singer outlines why it is inaccurate to blame the AVN’s website problem on a DDOS attack:

blog20121218_02

(Original post and subsequent discussion here)

So what next for the AVN from here? I see four options, for them to change their name and complete the appropriate paperwork with all relevant authorities that that would entail, for them to continue with their current name and face being forcibly shut down by NSW Fair Trading, for them to disband in an act of grand martyrdom and for Meryl Dorey to lay low for a while or for them to apply for a right of review of the department’s direction with the Administrative Decisions Tribunal.

Either way, we live in interesting times and I am quite curious to see which direction this will progress in.

Further Reading (and some listening and watching):

Anti-Vac group told to change name – Tracey Spicer and Tim Webster on 2UE Radio discuss the NSW Department of Fair Trade’s decision with phone in guest Anthony Roberts, the Minister for Fair Trade (who is rather critical of the anti-vaccination movement and refers to groups such as the AVN as “nut jobs”). Audio available, I will link to a transcript if I see one about.

AVN ordered to change its name – An article on Australian Doctor’s website (professional credentials and login required to view full article).

Australian Vaccination Network ordered to change it’s name – The media release from the Minister for Fair Trading’s office, also published here on the Australian Healthcare and Hospitals Association’s website.

The AVN Asks – What’s in a Name? – The AVN’s official media release on the department’s direction. I’ll be sure to add links to any news services who run with the story.

AVN’s Meryl Dorey orders NSW Fair Trading to change its name – Another blog post from Dave the Happy Singer

NSW Government orders the AVN the change their name or face closure – A blog post on the Skeptics’ Book of Pooh Pooh

Panellists on ABC’s current events panel show The Drum discuss the AVN in a less than impressed manner. Thank you to Anne Blake for uploading the video.

Anti-vaccination network told to change its name or be shut down – An article on The Conversation by Rachael Dunlop

And now for some Jimmy Rustling of a different kind – And a blog post by landlockedseaotter

David Penberthy: Anti-vaccine set forced to fess up – An opinion piece by David Penberthy appearing in Adelaide Now endorsing NSW Fair Trading’s direction.

AVN – NSW Fair Trading Orders Name Change – Christine Bayne of Diluted Thinking has put together a brilliant run down of the correspondence between the AVN and NSW Fair Trading and the potential liabilities faced by AVN committee members.

I would like to note a special thanks to everyone over at Stop the Australian (anti)Vaccination Network, especially those who have been posting links and information as they’ve come across them. I have been a little overwhelmed recently, trying to work out how to balance university, parenting and getting enough sleep, so my participation and this blog (and the housework) have fallen by the wayside somewhat. I am hoping that after the holiday season is done, I will be able to rest and find the resources to put more time into both SAVN and writing.

If you are interested in supporting SAVN, you are very much welcome to like their Facebook page. SAVN also uses the hash tag #StopAVN on Twitter.

[Edit] 1:45pm 19/12/2012: Added links to the piece in The Conversation and landlockedseaotter’s post to the Further Reading section.

[Edit] 12:00pm 21/12/2012: Added links to David Penberthy’s article in Adelaide Now and Christine Bayne’s post at Diluted thinking to the Further Reading section.

Big Pharma Shill

In the course of challenging the claims of the anti-vaccination movement, I (and a great many fine people before me) have been called several choice words and have witnessed some rather odd conclusions being jumped to. One which crops up frequently is that we are ‘big pharma shills’ and/or ‘lackeys for the drug companies’, implying that we have a close relationship with one or several pharmaceutical companies which are not disclosed and that we are being rewarded for promoting their agenda or products.

This seems to be a common form of libel used by some members of anti-vax groups to discredit or cast aspersions on those who disagree with them, suggesting corruption, greed and underhanded behaviour. It is directed at individuals and groups and happens with enough frequency that it’s almost background noise. I am familiar with anti-vax individuals who pepper their comments and tweets with the term ‘shill’ as though it were punctuation.

I question whether there is much point challenging these claims. Personally, I don’t appreciate the suggestion that I don’t conduct myself with integrity, but in the grand scheme of things, I can cop it on the chin. It’s less troubling than being told that I’m poisoning or killing my children by vaccinating them and it’s coming from people who frankly don’t have a great effect on my self worth.

Other than clearly refuting these claims (which again is a matter of trust that I am being honest) or requesting evidence from those making the accusations (of which there is none), I have been unable to conceive of any way to challenge them. Taken to absurd lengths, I could submit to having my finances investigated, but a clear record could be met with suggestions that I am receiving cash in hand, goods or other benefits, or the auditor could be accused of being corrupt and in on the conspiracy, as could a private investigator.

As there is no way to completely disprove (or prove) these claims, it may be better to focus on whether anybody beyond the echo chamber of conspiracy theorist anti-vax sub-groups actually finds these claims in any way believable or compelling.

My suspicion is that rather than the intended outcome, being that the person challenging anti-vax claims is being discredited, the cries of ‘shill’ and ‘lackey’ mostly serve to suggest to the wider public that the person making said claims is prone to jumping to conclusions, attacking the integrity of the person challenging them rather than addressing the topic at hand and/or valuing their personal hypotheses over evidence based claims. If so, I think that I can accept being subjected to a tirade of ‘shill’ and ‘lackey’ every now and then if it serves to further discredit the anti-vax movement.

What do you perceive the effects of these claims to be? Comment is most welcome.

Further reading:
The “Pharma-Shill Gambit” – Respectful Insolence
Thrills, Spills and Big Pharma Shills – Subspecies (demonstrating a point I didn’t touch on, that the suggestion that those with financial or other links to ‘Big Pharma’ behave unethically is pretty darn offensive and inaccurate also)
We, Pharma Shills – The Poxes Blog (an excellent outline of how absurd the pharma shill conspiracy theory is)

Addit: Oh, alright. No, I do not have a relationship with any pharmaceutical company beyond the over the counter analgesics I take when my back is particularly bad or the vaccines that have been administered to myself and my family. I’m fortunate enough not to have any need for prescription medication at the moment and when it’s a viable option, I prefer to alter my lifestyle to manage health troubles rather than go on medication. If it’s recommended though, I have no objection to taking medication and I have a great deal of gratitude that it’s around to help us maintain the best level of wellness possible, particularly when I consider the alternative.

My experience is that those in the anti-anti-vax and skeptic communities that I have interacted with have a strong belief that pharmaceutical companies should be held to the highest standards and are well deserving of criticism when ethical standards are breached. A fine example of this willingness to examine non-evidence based medical claims and question whether behaviour and methods are ethical and effective is demonstrated by public health advocate Dr Ken Harvey, who critically examines and holds to account the big pharmaceutical companies, shonky products and the Australian Vaccination Network alike.

If those who believe that the people who spend their time and expertise devoted to reading, writing, examining and challenging misinformation and behaviour which is dangerous to the public’s health are motivated by greed or are behaving with a lack of integrity, I can only assume that this is indicative of the way they they view the world. Dim indeed.