fearmongering

Melanie’s Marvelous Measles, a pro-disease book for children by Stephanie Messenger

This report appears in The Skeptic Zone Podcast #330 {Permalink}

"Marvelous"

“Marvelous”

In the wake of the current US measles outbreak, which began at Disneyland in California and has so far has resulted in 121 infections and thousands more people exposed across seventeen states (figures current for 15/02/2015), public and media attention has been directed toward the issues of vaccination and the anti-vaccination movement.

As we witness the very real effects of lowered herd immunity due to vaccine refusal, vocal support for vaccines has been prominent, as has criticism of anti-vaccination misinformation. In particular, public attention has again been drawn to “Melanie’s Marvelous Measles“; a picture book which attempts to reassure children that it’s a good thing to experience measles infection, written by Australian vaccination opponent Stephanie Messenger.

The blurb on the back cover gives a good summary as to what the book is about:

“Melanie’s Marvelous Measles was written to educate children on the benefits of having measles and how you can heal from them naturally and successfully. Often today, we are being bombarded with messages from vested interests to fear all diseases in order for someone to sell some potion or vaccine, when, in fact, history shows that in industrialized countries, these diseases are quite benign and, according to natural health sources, beneficial to the body.”

You know… this book is troubling on so many levels. When I decided to cover it in my report this week, I initially wondered whether I’d have to present you with ten minutes of stunned silence.

The story within follows Tina, who arrives at her first day back at school after the winter holidays to find that her friend Melanie is absent. Their teacher, heavily pregnant, advises the class that Melanie is at home with measles. Some children are concerned and worried about catching measles.

“Tina heard Jared tell Travis, the boy beside him, that he wouldn’t get the measles because he had been vaccinated.
Travis said that he wasn’t vaccinated, but didn’t mind, until Jared then told him angrily, “Well, you’re going to die if you don’t get vaccinated.”
Travis thought about this for a minute and said to Jared “Well, I know that isn’t true because I haven’t had any vaccinations and I am still alive!”
Jared didn’t know what to say to that!”

And why should Jared? He’s a kid… a fictional one at that. However, adults – adults who write books for children – certainly should know better.

Of course kids who aren’t vaccinated aren’t necessarily ‘going to die’… the nuances of risk are utterly lacking in this book. It’s also a little heavy handed in portraying a vaccinated kid in a negative manner – more on this later.

Tina returns home after school and chats with her mother about Melanie, measles and the other children’s reactions. Tina’s mother, who has not vaccinated Tina after attributing an illness Tine’s older brother experienced to his vaccination, reassures Tina that the measles don’t hurt. She tells Karen that children get spots on their body and can feel very hot for a day or so, and that for most children it is a good thing to get measles, as many wise people believe measles make the body stronger and more mature for the future. Tina then asks her mother why the other children were scared. Her mother replies,

“They are scared because they don’t know much about measles and most people fear things they don’t know anything about. It’s a bit like being scared of the dark.”

irony!

Tina’s mother then tells her about pox parties, and “natural lifelong immunity”

This has always puzzled me greatly. If measles and chickenpox are absolutely fine to experience, why on earth do some anti-vaccinationists declare immunity gained by experiencing an illness to be a good thing? Bizarre.

The story continues. Tina asks her mother if she can go and visit Melanie in the hopes of catching her measles. Her mother feels that this is a great idea and suggests bringing carrot juice and melon to help Melanie recover.

Yep, they’re having a pox party for two.

Melanie greets Tina at the door and proudly shows off her spots, reassuring Tina that they don’t itch or hurt at all. Melanie’s mother is nonplussed at the efficacy of the measles vaccine Melanie recieved and mentions that Melanie has the worst case of measles the doctor had seen in years.

Melanie’s family doctor… must be rather limited in his experience, if an active and happy child with a rash is the worst case of measles he’s seen in years. Common measles symptoms include fever, malaise, runny nose, dry cough, conjunctivitis and rash… complications can include middle ear inflammation, diarrhoea and vomiting, respiratory infections, pneumonia, miscarriage and premature labour in pregnant women (such as Tina and Melanie’s teacher), encephalitis (which occurs in around one in a thousand measles cases – 10-15% of people with encephalitis die, 15-40% end up with degrees of permenant brain damage). There’s one complication of measles that Melanie’s family doctor wouldn’t have been able to spot though – subacute sclerosing panencephalitis, or SSPE. It’s rare, affecting around one in a hundred thousand cases of measles, but nasty… SSPE is progressive inflammation of the brain that causes loss of personality and intellectual disability. SSPE usually begins around seven years after measles infection.

It’s hard to fathom how anybody could be aware of these facts and still classify measles as a benign short-lived children’s illness… and one to actively seek out exposure to.

Back to the book, Tina’s mother talks about the ability of ‘plenty of vitamin A’ to prevent measles and assist recovery from measles. The girls play with dolls, hug and display wonderful manners.

A week later, Melanie is back at school with no rash. Tina and her mother are incredibly disappointed that Tina hasn’t contracted measles – Tina’s mother attributes this to Tina’s immune system being in good condition, because she eats lots of raw fresh food, drinks plenty of water and plays outside.

As much as it’s feeling like shooting fish in a barrel to point out the inaccuracies in this book… I find the downplaying of how highly infectious measles is is one of the most troubling elements in Melanie’s Marvelous Measles. Measles is airborne and lives a long time outside the human body… a person can become infected with measles by entering a room that somebody carrying it has been in two hours prior. It is estimated that nine in ten people without immunity who have contact with someone who is carrying measles will contract it. Measles symptoms usually occur 10-12 days after infection… all of this means that measles can spread like wildfire – particularly in areas of low herd immunity.

The book ends with the news that Jared, our vaccinated strawman, did get the measles. Tina attributes this to Jared eating so many sweets and chips, and sanctimoniously wishes, “I hope the measles make his body stronger and more mature and that he learns to eat more fresh foods so he can take better care of his body,”. The accompanying image is of an annoyed Jared laying in bed covered in spots with a hamburger, chips (labeled ‘MSG enriched, GM Full, I kid you not), cheezels, soda, cupcake, chocolate bar on his bedside table.

The emphasis on nutrition is heavy here – as is the suggestion that good foods can prevent disease as effectively as we know vaccines can. Of course good nutrition affects general health, but as my friend Alison so eloquently put it recently, “Diseases don’t care if you’ve eaten kale or McDonalds.”

The last page features Tina beaming up at her mother, juice in hand, fruit beside her, and exclaiming, “Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to catch measles next time someone we know has them!”

There’s a dedication in the front of the book, which I’m thinking some of the book’s intended audience, children from four to ten years old, would read if they were reading independently. It states,

“Dedication . . .
This book is dedicated to Jason, my first born son. In his short life he taught me to be a more responsible parent, and with his death from vaccinations, came my life purpose.”

It seems that Stephanie Messenger has experienced terrible grief in her life, which has led her on the path she pursues. However, I question whether it is responsible to associate infant death with vaccination in a book for children – at all, but especially when the dangers of measles are downplayed so greatly – the risks of vaccination versus the diseases they prevent are utterly skewed. If I were a kid, who trusted in this book and the adult who gave it to me, I would be terrified of vaccines and fairly blase about measles. Which is perhaps the aim of this book – but goodness, I find it troubling. Kids trust their caregivers to provide them with accurate guidance in life and this book does anything but.

Mainstream media outlets, news websites and forums have been linking to Amazon’s listing of Melanie’s Marvelous Measles – and the torrent of negative reviews which Amazon users have been leaving.

Now, I don’t know how many of these people who have reviewed the book have actually read it, or whether many are just responding to its very existence. Some of the reviews are rather poignant – amongst the anger, frustration, mockery and black humour, there are some salient points which I feel bear repeating, such as this review from “Seabisquick”:

“My infant daughter went blind after contracting measles from an unvaccinated child, and yet there’s no braille version of this wonderful book for me to give her someday to explain to her how awesome the disease that took her sight away is.”

Also this, from someone identified as “AD”:

“Wow! I will have to buy this for my Dad. He and my uncle had Polio as toddlers and both were left with permanent disabilities. Now, in their golden years, they get to suffer from Post-Polio Syndrome as an added bonus! Preventable diseases truly are “marvelous” – just ask my Dad!”

A five star review from “M. J. Willow”:

“I’m so glad this book is out! Here I was thinking the two weeks of my childhood spent in a darkened room with blinding headaches and a burning fever were not fun. It was the early sixties and the measles were all the rage, but I was too young and ignorant to realize I was experiencing a miracle. This book has opened my eyes. I had to read it through some thick eye glasses though. They’re almost as fun to wear as the little, plastic sunglasses I had to keep on when I watched tv with my viral pals, The Measles. To this day the measles protect me from getting too much sun as the sensitivity to light has never left me.

Just to be a part of history and to have lived under a quarantine that stretched out to almost a month when my mother took ill with my marvelous measles is an honor I didn’t recognize. Lucky for me though! I had immunity to the disease! Good thing my mother wasn’t pregnant then. At least, I don’t think she was. I have no siblings.

I must apologize to my children for withholding such a glorious experience from them. Vaccines were available and free for the taking when they were young. I can’t believe I fell for that. Hopefully, they will forgive me for denying them this life-changing experience.”

And finally this, from user “TampaGirl”:

“What a dirtbag move to steal the title of author Roald Dahl’s book “George’s Marvelous Medicine”– Roald Dahl’s daughter died of measles. This so-called author is just a leach on society, children, and the memory of Dahl’s little girl.”

Indeed, the title “Melanie’s Marvelous Measles” does bear resemblance to the title of Roald Dahl’s book “George’s Marvelous Medicine”.

Which leads me back to the media coverage relating to the current US measles outbreak. Circulating widely at the moment is an open letter which Roald Dahl wrote to parents in 1988, in which he urges them to vaccinate their children and speaks about his own experience of losing his seven year old daughter Olivia to measles in 1962.

It’s a heartbreaking but important read, and has been republished on many websites over the past few weeks; I’ll put a link in the show notes to its publication on Snopes, which also includes Dahl’s harrowing recollection of his daughter’s last day, and his wife Patricia Neal’s perspective on losing Olivia and the effect it had on Roald Dahl.

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“For Olivia 20 April 1955 – 17 November 1962”, in the front cover of The BFG by Roald Dahl.

So much of this is sad… that there’s an outbreak of measles in a country where it was considered eradicated, that some parents need convincing in order to vaccinate their children, that dangerous anti-vaccination misinformation – some directed at children – exists at all. Based on what I’ve been observing over the past month and a half since the US outbreak begun though, more and more members of the public are standing up for vaccination and criticising misinformation – and the media are acknowledging this sentiment.

While it’s lousy that it’s taken an outbreak to catalyse this wave of public support for vaccination, and the outbreak is unfortunately far from over, hopefully the pro-vaccination sentiment will strengthen as a result and some parents who are complacent or on the fence regarding vaccinating their children may reconsider their positions.

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Chemtrails, Chemtrails, Everywhere!

In day to day conversation, I am utterly guilty of discussing chemtrails without a great deal of seriousness.

I make terrible jokes – blaming them for any transient minor illness, taking photographs of contrails and posting them with faux-alarmist captions, setting up a satirical pro-chemtrail Facebook page. Many of my skeptical friends do this too; we use chemtrails as a punchlines in banter about conspiracy theorists and bizarre beliefs. They are up there with reptilians and the Illuminati.

hokusaichemtrails

The Great Wave off Kanagawa with Chemtrail. Katsushika Hokusai, 1831.

However, today I’m going to take a few moments to approach the subject a little more seriously… what is the conspiracy theory about, what are its ramifications, what is the simple and evidence-based explanation for the white trails across the sky left by aircraft?

Consistent with the bizarro world I’m writing from, last thing first – what are contrails?

Contrails: What Even Are They?

Contrails, a portmanteau of condensation and trail, are the white streaks left behind planes given favourable atmospheric conditions.

Aircraft fuel is composed primarily of hydrocarbons, these give off carbon dioxide and water vapour as their main combustion products. When these hot exhaust gases mix with rarefied cool air, the water in the gas freezes quickly and forms microscopic ice crystals, leaving trails of white haze. This haze is similar in look and chemical composition to cloud.

Dependent on the condensation in the atmosphere, contrails may dissipate quickly, or linger. The atmospheric conditions which support cirrus cloud formation – and the very moist atmosphere that results – can allow contrails to persist for hours.

For a more in-depth explanation of contrail formation and persistence, NASA have an excellent site devoted to the topic, the Contrail Education Project.

Chemtrail Conspiracy Theory, The Basics

conandoylechemtrails

Cover illustration from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Big Book of Victorian Chemtrails.

Contrails have been around for as long as modern aviation has.. but in the mid-1990s, the chemtrail conspiracy theory began to develop and spread.

The chemtrail (chemtrail being a portmanteau of “chemical” and “trail”) conspiracy theory takes many forms, but generally it is a belief that an authority – be it governmental, military, scientific or other (yes, the Illuminati, Zionists, “Elite” and reptilians all get a look in here) are using aircraft (often commercial aviation aircraft for greater concealment, sometimes miliatary aircraft) to conduct spraying of our skies.

The composition of the chemicals varies with different claims – aluminium, barium, strontium and silver feature highly.. occasionally biological agents are said to be involved. The purpose of the spraying varies widely also… the most popular belief seems to be that it is the facilitation of a geoengineering project to alter weather, reflect the sun’s rays or combat climate change. Other theories include spraying to control the population, to cause illness, to control minds, to vaccinate people without their consent. Some believers claim that chemtrail spraying is a form of military weapons testing.

Occasionally, chemtrail conspiracy theorists produce images of commercial passenger aircraft containing large connected barrels in place of seats as evidence that the aviation industry is involved in the spraying of chemicals, claiming that these are an aerosol dispersion system. In fact, they’re full of water – they are used by airlines to simulate the weight of passengers and cargo, to test different centers of gravity while the aircraft is in flight.

As with explanations of how contrails are formed however, the explanation of the purpose of the ballast barrels are often countered with claims of cover-ups and disinformation by those invested in chemtrail conspiracy theories. This is often a trouble with conspiracy theories; any debunking or rational explanation for phenomena is met by the true believer with distrust and often an expansion of the original theory to account for new information. To demonstrate this, an interesting exercise for skeptics can be to create a theory, then expand it to incorporate further conspiracies as information counter to the theory is encountered.

The “Evidence” for Chemtrails

In order to compile this report, I sat myself down to watch documentaries produced by chemtrail believers, “Why in the World are they Spraying?” and “What in the World are they Spraying?“.

Dear readers, I have made it through documentaries on Deepak Chopra, I’ve heard the stories of 9-11 Truthers, watched anti-vaccination propaganda, I’ve gotten through the entirety of Charlene Werner explaining the her understanding of the physics behind how homeopathy. I’ve sung along to Mike Adams’ raps about GMOs and the flu vaccination. Heck, I’ve watched all of Plan 9 From Outer Space and Vampyros Lesbos – I think that I have a fairly high tolerance for painful viewing.

I’ve attended Paranormal and Spiritual Expos and walked around the Mind Body Wallet Festival – I can generally cope with wacky ideas and claims. But the chemtrail documentaries… they had me beat. I got through perhaps half an hour of gish galloping before I just couldn’t take it anymore… so many claims with such flimsy evidence, where any was provided at all. Both documentaries are available in full on YouTube and if you can make it through even one, I salute you.

One thing that I’ll note – a scene in one of these documentaries showed a man walking about some bushland, pointing out trees which were dead or not thriving, attributing their state to chemtrail spraying. While I’m more familiar with rural Australia than I am the US, their evidence of chemtrails looked very much consistent to me with the effects of country going through drought conditions.

People interviewed on the documentary also attributed weather conditions consistent with what we’ve been experiencing worldwide over the past few years to chemtrail spraying. They claimed that geoengineering was taking place in an effort from the military and government to reflect the sun’s rays and reduce warming. This does make me wonder what the documentary makers’ position on anthropomorphic climate change is.

The Muppet Movie, with cameos from Big Bird and a chemtrail - much easier viewing!

The Muppet Movie, with cameos from Big Bird and a chemtrail – much easier viewing!

So, aside from exposing your faithful reporter to some incredibly difficult viewing – what’s the harm in believing in chemtrail conspiracy theories? Overall, it can seem like a bit of relatively harmless kookiness, all things considered.

What’s the Harm to Society?

Anti-chemtrail activists are surprisingly active and visible – affixing corflute signs to trees and signposts around their neighbourhoods, writing letters to and petitioning MPs (one anti-chemtrail activist actually made it into the South Australian Parliament), holding protests against geoengineering and chemtrail spraying in cities across Australia. While I wholeheartedly support people becoming involved in political activism, in this case, I suspect that the resources MPs and police put toward responding to the chemtrail activists could be put to some better use.

The largest local chemtrail conspiracy group on Facebook, “Australia & New Zealand Against Chemtrails & Geoengineering”, boasts 8,393 members (as of 04/12/2014), which is almost five hundred more likes than anti-vaccination campaigners the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network currently have. Anti-chemtrail activists are visible and spreading their message.

Two years ago, an article ran in The Australian, reporting on threats being made by anti-chemtrail activists to harm pilots and shoot down commercial aircraft, stating that these threats were becoming more overt, prevalent and alarming. Australian Federal Police have monitored anti-chemtrail activists planning to intercept airline pilots at Sydney airport. Again, more police resources… while pilots in particular and aviation companies in general experience concern for their safety.

What’s the Harm to Believers?

Those were a few points demonstrating anti-chemtrail activism’s effect on the general public, but what about believers?

Aaaaaaaaargh!

Aaaaaaaaargh!

I don’t imagine that it feels wonderful to hold the belief that the government and/or the aviation industry and/or the Illuminati are out there, wielding power and spraying the skies, causing harm to the population.

Similar to anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists who believe that the medical establishment and government – and we’re talking doctors, nurses, researchers, pharmaceutical company employees, public health officials, journalists – are all out to harm them, anti-chemtrail activists subscribe to a rather far reaching conspiracy too. How far reaching? Off the top of my head, I’d assume that those in on the conspiracy would include the government, the military, the aviation industry (from CEOs to baggage handlers) aeronautical engineers involved in designing, assembling, maintaining and repairing aircraft, everybody employed by an airport, everybody involved in manufacturing and transporting the chemicals that they allege are being sprayed. Then perhaps emergency services workers – in case a plane went down, surely they’d need to know how to cover up evidence of chemical tanks and spraying.

That’s a heck of a lot of people who’d need to be working at keeping a substantially large secret, don’t you think? Therefore, that’s a heck of a lot of people who are willing to sacrifice the health of the general population in order to carry out some grand master plan.

This is a point that really gets me when it comes to those who subscribe to conspiracy theories such as these… the huge number of people that believers are willing to consider to be either malicious or stupid. It seems such a bleak view to hold of your fellow humans.

There’s also the general worry that I assume chemtrail believers experience to varying degrees. Imagine, if you will, watching the skies in fear and genuinely worrying for your health. While we might find the belief in a chemtrail conspiracy theory irrational, people do genuinely believe it nonetheless – and the concern, agitation and nocebo effect generated by this belief can be real.

Occasionally this fear regarding harm to health leads people to wear masks or scarves over their faces or spend time spraying vinegar in the air around them, which allegedly dissipates or neutralises chemtrail chemicals. Others turn to buying products specifically designed to provide protection – orgonite devices and solutions to be ingested (homeopathic or otherwise). In extreme cases, people relocate to so called “safe zones”, where aircraft are said not to be spraying.

A-Sunday-Afternoon-on-th-01

Seurat’s “Un dimanche après-midi à l’Ile de la Grande Jatte, avec Chemtrail”

Finally, there’s the tendency of people who believe in one conspiracy theory to be open to others… and there are others which cause more direct and measurable harm to individuals and society, such as anti-vax conspiracies. It’s difficult to make decisions which will lead to positive social, health and well being outcomes for yourself and your loved ones if you have a strong distrust in scientific consensus and all authority.

Yes, I did mention social outcomes. While I do my utmost not to ridicule individuals – in fact, I have some sympathy for people living with the fear of what is in our skies – I do still think that chemtrails are one of the wackier and more far fetched conspiracy theories out there. Frankly, I can’t see the satire letting up any time soon.

This post an expansion of an Evidence, Please report featured on Episode #314 of The Skeptic Zone Podcast. It was featured in The Skeptic Magazine Vol 35 no 1, March 2015. 

Anti-Abortion Protesters and Breast Cancer Lies in Melbourne.

I am currently staying in Melbourne to attend laboratory classes and have been catching the tram in to the city morning and afternoon to get to university. A couple of mornings ago as I was looking out the window, I noticed some anti-abortion picketers with banners and signs standing at either side of the gates to the Fertility Control Clinic in East Melbourne. They were displaying signs decorated with the pink ribbon symbol and slogans claiming that abortion increases women’s risk of developing breast cancer. On my way home, I was prepared to disembark from my tram so that I could take a photograph of the banners that the picketers had set up and ask them a few questions on where they were obtaining data to support their claim, but when I passed the fertility clinic, I saw that they had gone. They were not present when I went past the next day either.

I wish to note that as disagreeable as I find the distressing messages voiced by anti-abortion picketers, I am an advocate for freedom of speech and I do not want to take away their ability to peacefully state their views; though I do appreciate the argument for exclusion zones around abortion clinic gates and would proudly volunteer to be an escort for women who use the clinic’s services, given the appropriate training.

What I do very much object to though, is when they – or anyone, for that matter – tell lies about health risks in order to scare people in to doing as they wish.

There is no credible evidence to support the claim that having an abortion or experiencing miscarriage increases the risk that a woman will develop breast cancer. When I first saw the protesters this morning and tweeted about their appropriation of the pink ribbon symbol, @danientifically (who I recommend you follow if you enjoy tweets from reasoned, compassionate people with a fine sense of humour) asked the Cancer Council Australia how they felt about it. They kindly responded with this link, which contains a brief run down of credible information regarding the myth of a link between abortion and increased risk of breast cancer.

Having had time to look into it since, I’ve found that anti-abortion protesters have been using this myth for quite some time – and as such, there is much literature citing evidence which refutes their claim. From the American Cancer Society:

In February 2003, the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) held a workshop of more than 100 of the world’s leading experts who study pregnancy and breast cancer risk. The experts reviewed human and animal studies that looked at the link between pregnancy and breast cancer risk, including studies of induced and spontaneous abortions. Some of their findings were:

  • Breast cancer risk is increased for a short time after a full-term pregnancy (that is, a pregnancy that results in the birth of a living child).
  • Induced abortion is not linked to an increase in breast cancer risk.
  • Spontaneous abortion is not linked to an increase in breast cancer risk.

The level of scientific evidence for these findings was considered to be “well established” (the highest level).

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Committee on Gynecologic Practice also reviewed the available evidence in 2003 and again in 2009. ACOG published its most recent findings in June 2009. At that time, the Committee said, “Early studies of the relationship between prior induced abortion and breast cancer risk were methodologically flawed. More rigorous recent studies demonstrate no causal relationship between induced abortion and a subsequent increase in breast cancer risk.”

In 2004, the Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer, based out of Oxford University in England, put together the results from 53 separate studies done in 16 different countries. These studies included about 83,000 women with breast cancer. After combining and reviewing the results from these studies, the researchers concluded that “the totality of worldwide epidemiological evidence indicates that pregnancies ending as either spontaneous or induced abortions do not have adverse effects on women’s subsequent risk of developing breast cancer.” These experts did not find that abortions (either induced or spontaneous) cause a higher breast cancer risk.

The picketers’ stance against abortion is presumably a moral one, at times supported by religious belief, and I’m sure that they have moral arguments that they feel they can back up their position with. Certainly, moral positions can (and in my frank opinion, should) be backed up with fact – but when the fact being used is a blatant falsehood, I am very much compelled to call that out. Especially when those falsehoods are being used to distress people who may be feeling vulnerable.

pink_ribbon

As a person who is strongly pro-choice and an advocate for bodily autonomy, it can be very easy to demonise anti-abortion picketers – especially given the outcomes of their protests; both the harm they cause individuals and the political influence that they hold. The use of graphic images disgusts me, harassment and attacks on both women seeking abortion and abortion providers should be dealt with strongly via the legal system. Something I try to keep in mind when I see them however, is that they genuinely do believe that their view is right – that they are fighting to save the lives of vulnerable beings. Alongside anti-vaccination campaigners who truly believe that vaccines are harming children, and religious prosthelytisers who honestly hope to save our souls from eternal damnation, the majority of anti-abortionists do believe that they are trying to stop a terrible and unjust harm that occurs within our society. It is rare that a passionate campaigner for a cause does so to do evil.

As such, I suspect that it is entirely possible that some anti-abortionists may know that the abortion/breast cancer myth is a falsehood. When I discussed my thoughts on the matter with Felix (who lacks a Twitter account for me to link to), he relayed to me an experience he had years ago, when a friend was trying to convert him to Christianity. Felix went and had a discussion with his friend’s minister and questioned the minister’s claims that homosexuality presented dangers to people’s health. When confronted with somebody willing to question the credibility of his claims, the minister actually outright admitted that they were false, but he felt that telling a lie was an acceptable and minor wrong when looking at the bigger picture; the fate of a person’s eternal soul. Likewise, perhaps some anti-abortionists realise that their claim regarding breast cancer is less than credible, but feel that it is justifiable to use it as a scare tactic in the hope of preventing women from having abortions.

It is a complex situation and I do not believe that I have the requisite knowledge or skills to have a productive conversation with anti-abortion protesters and be able to convince them that their claims regarding breast cancer are scientifically unsound and can not be ethically employed as a part of their argument. However, what I am capable of to a degree is publicly stating that their claim regarding abortion and increased breast cancer risk is incorrect – and in publicising that they are perpetrating a falsehood, I hope that anybody who has been misled by anti-abortion propaganda on this topic can be assured that it is an outright lie.

NB: I have chosen to use the term “anti-abortion” to describe what is also referred to as the “pro-life” movement, as I consider it to be a more accurate descriptor. 

Further reading:

Breast Cancer Risk Factors – A Review of the Evidence Cancer Australia

Is Abortion Linked to Breast Cancer?American Cancer Society

Abortion – Breast Cancer Hypothesis – Wikipedia

The Truth About Abortions and Breast Cancer – Cosmopolitan Magazine

Five responses to claims made by the Australian (anti-)Vaccination Network.

I would like to briefly address some assertions that I have witnessed being made by the Australian (anti-)Vaccination Network (AVN). The following five quotes are representative of recurring claims.

"Because every issue has two sides"

1) “Every issue has two sides” (from the banner at the top of the AVN’s website, above)

Indeed – and some sides are just plain bulldust!

In the case of whether vaccination is safe, effective and our best chance at protecting ourselves from vaccine preventable diseases, on one side is scientific consensus, the educated opinion of the medical fraternity, public health policy and the majority of informed laypeople. On the other are a few rogue scientists, conspiracy theorists, misled and misinformed individuals and charlatans.

Insisting that anti-vaccination spokespeople be heard whenever the subject of vaccination comes up is demanding false balance. It is equivalent to ensuring that a flat-earther be invited to speak at a geography conference or teaching intelligent design in science classes. The scientific consensus is in and it has been in for a long time. Any controversy regarding whether vaccination is the safest and most effective method of preventing vaccine preventable diseases is being manufactured from an ill informed and non-evidence based position.

2) “We are not anti-vaccination – we are about choice” (‘Doctors unite to smash the anti-vaccine group‘, The Daily Telegraph, 22 July 2012)

…just as long as that choice is to refuse vaccination.

I have looked long and hard, as have others, and have been unable find one example on the AVN’s website of a situation in which the AVN would find vaccination to be an acceptable proposition. The AVN sells a t-shirt in their online store which reads “Love them. Protect them. Never inject them.”

A Titan Arum by any other name would smell as rank, the AVN are anti-vaccination.

I presume that the AVN’s insistence that they are pro-choice is a PR exercise. I would like to know precisely why they wish to distance themselves from the movement that they are a part of.

I suspect that their decision to label themselves ‘pro-choice’ instead was to help cultivate a desired image of the AVN as oppressed freedom fighters. I feel that Meryl Dorey’s Twitter account “nocompulsoryvac” and blog posting handle “nocompulsoryvaccination” support my hypothesis.

As such, I would like point out that there is no threat to peoples’ right to refuse vaccination for themselves or their children in Australia. Parents may choose to forfeit a financial incentive or government benefit when they refuse to vaccinate their children. In some instances adults may need to choose a career which doesn’t require them to be vaccinated for the safety of themselves and others. However, Australian health policy does not enforce compulsory or mandatory vaccination and I know of very few people who feel that it should.

3) “Vaccination is neither 100% safe nor 100% effective and parents need to be fully informed before making a decision for their children.” (‘Public Health Unit Turns Down the Offer to Speak at Vaccination Seminar | Vactruth.com‘ AVN blog post (comments), 16 June 2012)

I concur, let’s have a biscuit!

I have never heard anybody make the claim that vaccination is either 100% safe or 100% effective. When weighing up the risks associated with vaccination against the risks in not vaccinating, vaccination is inarguably the much safer option. Likewise, the efficacy of vaccination in preventing vaccine preventable diseases (or ensuring a much milder case of the illness is contracted in some cases when exposure occurs) is incomparable against the non-existent preventative powers of not vaccinating at all.

I agree that parents should be making an informed decision when considering vaccinating their children. However, that information should be correct and come from a credible source, such as their GP or the Immunisation Handbook, rather than shonky misinformation websites such as that of the AVN, whale.to or naturalnews.com.

4) “How many children are we willing to sacrifice before the altar of vaccination in order to ‘protect’ society?” (‘Can children be considered collateral damage‘, AVN blog post, 24 March 2011)

None. No light-hearted opening line for this one.

I assert that the suggestion of ‘sacrifice’ is an inaccurate and unreasonable appeal to emotion. Any harm caused by vaccination is a tragedy and those involved in the development of vaccines work
tirelessly to improve the safety of vaccines in order to bring them as close as they can possibly be to being 100% safe.

While the majority of adverse reactions to the whole cell pertussis component of Triple Antigen were mild and had no long term effects (these included fever, irritability, persistent crying and local site reaction), immunologists worked to produce an acellular pertussis vaccine which has been associated with far fewer reactions. Likewise, the incredibly rare occurrence of paralytic poliomyelitis (one in two point four million) from the oral polio vaccine was considered unacceptable. Because of this, the inactivated poliomyelitis vaccine was developed.

Again, consider the risks associated with vaccination alongside the risks inherent with non-vaccination. Opting out of vaccination (without a genuine medical contraindication) is choosing the much higher risk of not vaccinating. There is no completely safe option, only one with a comparatively low risk – a low risk which is being reduced with every development which improves the safety of vaccines we use.

5) “I find the hostile attitude towards parents of vaccine injured children particularly astounding, as parents of children that have been killed or disabled have always been treated with an outpouring of compassion, understanding and empathy.” (‘‘Anti Vaxxer’ the new dirty word?‘, AVN blog post, 31 July 2012)

Meryl Dorey and a number of her colleagues identify as parents of vaccine-injured children, but I assert that framing criticism of the AVN as ‘attacks on parents of vaccine-injured children’ is a cheap and inaccurate attempt to demonise anybody who publicly disagrees with them.

I appreciate the diverse experiences of parents of children with special needs. I do have some insight into family life with children with disabilities, as I grew up alongside my younger brother, who has severe autism and developmental delay. I acknowledge that I cannot claim to empathise with parents of children with special needs though and I sincerely hope that when I speak with those who do have a child with a disability I am considerate and receptive.

I acknowledge that sadly, adverse reactions to vaccines do occur and that there are children and adults with genuine vaccine injuries. I do question whether the cases of allergies, asthma, autism and other conditions which the AVN’s members are attributing to vaccination have been confirmed as vaccine related by medical professionals, given that there is no credible evidence that vaccination causes any of the above conditions. However, I do not single out individuals publicly, nor do I make contact and question or criticise them directly.

Many parents of children with special needs – including parents who have gone through the tragedy of an adverse reaction to a vaccine – are still able to accept that vaccination is our safest and most effective option in preventing vaccine preventable diseases (and my hat is off to them). Of the few who choose to reject the overwhelming majority of credible evidence supporting vaccination, there is a sub set who then spread anti-vaccination misinformation and propaganda. They are joined with others who, for reasons other than something so personal as parenting a special needs child, believe that scientific consensus is not credible and vaccination is either unsafe, ineffective or both.

I would like to clearly state that my criticism of the AVN and my desire to hold them accountable is because they are an organisation which, if left unchallenged, spread misinformation which can cause doubt as to the safety and efficacy of vaccination, scaring parents away from having their children vaccinated. Unvaccinated children are at risk of serious illness and in some instances, death. The lower the vaccination rate, the greater the risk that an infant too young to be vaccinated, a child with a compromised immune system due to cancer treatment or organ transplant or others who cannot be vaccinated will be exposed to a vaccine preventable disease.

I do not attack parents of vaccine injured children, I criticise the actions of an organisation which, given legitimacy, put the most vulnerable members of our community at risk.

(See my previous post: “This is criticism, this is not abuse“)

At the time of posting, all links to the AVN’s website are inactive. From Meryl Dorey (full text here):

“Last night, ABC’s media watch put out a dreadful story calling for the media to stop reporting the other side of the vaccination issue. The result was that so many people came to the AVN’s website, the server was overloaded and the site taken down. We have upgraded our server and should be back online within 24 hours, but it is obvious that there is a real need and desire in the community for balanced information on this issue.”

Being inclined to consider two sides to every story, Ms Dorey, I would like to suggest that instead of jumping to the conclusion that your website being overloaded and collapsing was because “it is obvious that there is a real need and desire in the community for balanced information on this issue.”, you ruminate on whether perhaps part of that flood in website traffic was comprised of individuals wishing to see for themselves just how ‘baloney’-heavy the misinformation you’re espousing really is.

In lieu of the usual ‘Further Reading’ section to this rather opinion-heavy post, I thoroughly recommend viewing (or reading the transcript of) the Media Watch segment on WINNews Illawarra, the AVN and false balance in reporting which ran on ABC TV last night. Further background information to this story is provided in Reasonable Hank’s post “ABC News teaches WIN News a lesson in responsible public health broadcasting“.

Little Boxes Made of Whicky-Whacky – The Bamboo Charcoal ‘Hei Cube’

My apologies if I’ve just earwormed you with ‘Little Boxes’.

A few weeks ago, I was settling into bed of an evening with some light reading (Organic Gardener Magazine*) to wind down with when I spotted a relatively benign but nonetheless irritating feature in an advertorial. This is the ‘Hei Cube‘.

Hei Cube advertisement, text transcribed below.

The text reads as follows:

“Don’t forget your home-office in the spring-cleaning spree, but let the Hei Cube do the hard work for you. While it won’t dust the desk, it is said to help absorb electomagnetic waves when placed near a computer. Made from bamboo charcoal, it will also soak up unwanted odours and moisture from the room, and is 100 per cent natural and biodegradable. Available for $16.95 per cube, from purebamboo.com.au; 07 XXXX XXXX.”

Rudimentary as my radiation materials science knowledge is, the above struck me as suspicious. It bothered me enough that I went and confirmed that I was correct in my knowledge that the only materials which are capable of shielding electromagnetic fields are metals. Carboniferous material such as bamboo charcoal is completely ineffective at blocking electromagnetic waves when used in a shield. And any material placed in a cube to the side of a device emitting electromagnetic waves is completely irrelevant, electromagnetic waves do not change their direction because they find a little black cube attractive.

More troubling to me though is the suggestion that electromagnetic waves as found in household environments should pose any concern or present any risk to our health. I can understand how electromagnetic fields (EMF) may sound alarming – particularly when the ‘R’ word, radiation, is mentioned. A quick google about safety concerns about EMF brings up pages of links to sites warning of the dangers of exposure, anecdotal evidence of illness and harm abounds and there’s a substantial number of products sold which claim to protect one from the supposedly damaging radiation emanating from our televisions, computers and mobile phones.

A critical eye must be applied and a credible source of information must be found. This being a health concern, I went with the World Health Organisation.

The effects of electromagnetic radiation have been widely studied for many years now and scientific knowledge in this area is highly extensive. A recent extensive WHO review of available scientific literature concludes that based on current evidence, there are no health conditions which have been linked to exposure to low level electromagnetic radiation.

To summarise, the Hei Cube claims to protect you from electromagnetic waves which are not known to cause any harm by not affecting the electromagnetic field in any way.

As for the other claim made, that bamboo charcoal can absorb moisture and odours, there is perhaps some truth to it. Bamboo charcoal is a form of activated carbon and activated carbon is notably porous and it’s high surface area makes it capable of binding to a range of chemicals when used as an air or water filter. Whether the efficacy of a stationary cube of bamboo charcoal is noteworthy enough to make it worth $16.95 is debatable, but the claim that it will work as a desiccant (a substance which absorbs moisture) and deodoriser is at least relatively plausible. And I suppose some people may find it more aesthetically pleasing than a small bowl of bicarbonate of soda, which will also act as a desiccant and deodoriser at around a fiftieth of the price.

Note that the copy from the magazine uses language which avoids directly making a factual claim about the EMF blocking properties of the Hei Cube – “it is said to help absorb electromagnetic waves”. I do wonder how deliberate this was, whether the copy writer was aware that the claim was based on pseudoscience and worded the text accordingly, either to create room for doubt or to avoid making a false claim. Either way, I did leave a message on the magazine’s Facebook page. I received a cordial reply from the editor a few days later in which he assured me that he’d taken my message on board and let me know where to find more information on the watermelon frame I’d mentioned.

I’m planning on growing some lovely watermelons this year, an heirloom variety called ‘Moon and Stars’. And I will be growing them by exposing them to the most familiar form of electromagnetic radiation that we all encounter, sunlight!

Further reading:
What are electromagnetic fields? WHO
The Skeptic’s Dictionary – EMF

* I intend on conducting and writing up some critical assessment of the appeal organic home food production methods hold for me. Until then, I’d like to quickly state my position – I am not outright opposed to GMO (I believe that it has the potential for a great deal of good), I am far from chemophobic and I want to stress that the label ‘organic’ is not a literal one – it originated from the view of the garden as a single organism, rather than the now common interpretation that organic gardening is the exclusive use of organic compounds. Oh, and my thoughts on biodynamics? A whole lot of woo which can result in some non-magical but often delicious produce. Nom.