parenting

Michael Leunig, Conscience, and The Choice to Vaccinate

Popular whimsical Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig has again raised controversy with a cartoon published in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald on the 19th of August on the topic of vaccination.

The cartoon, depicting a close-up of the hands in Michaelangelo’s painting “The Creation of Adam”, with the hand of Adam holding a syringe is titled, “Fascist Epiphany”, and states, “The God of Science grants politicians the divine right to enforce mass medication upon babies and children”.

Michael Leunig's August 19 cartoon, via his website

Michael Leunig’s August 19 2015 cartoon, via Leunig’s website.

Criticism via social and online media was prompt, with several news outlets running stories that morning – one of which was Mamamia, who contacted me to discuss the cartoon.

Speaking to Mamamia, Alabaster said she believed the cartoon to be “highly problematic”.

“It sends the community a message of fear and mistrust, based on ideas that simply aren’t truthful. Science gives us the knowledge that vaccines are the safest and most effective way we can protect our children against vaccine preventable diseases.”

She argues that reframing the Government’s policy as “forced mass medication” is disingenuous at best, and at worst, could put children in danger.

“We need to be reassuring parents with the facts, not scaring them with emotive cartoons about fascism,” she said.

Leunig has made several statements in response to the public’s reaction to his cartoon, in which he’s refused to disclose his personal opinion on vaccination, nor acknowledge the science supporting them, instead diverting the conversation to his opinions on the government’s decision.

From The Age:

“I was conscripted for military service in Vietnam when I was young,” Leunig said.

“I felt the full weight of that kind of authoritarianism for a futile and sad tragedy that took place in Vietnam.

“I am weary of compliance in the name of civic responsibility.”

I feel immense compassion for those who experienced the tragedies of the Vietnam War – any war – and thoroughly support conscientious objection to military conscription. However, I take great issue with comparisons being drawn between conscientious objection to taking part in war, and so-called “conscientious objection” to vaccinations.

Vaccination is in part a matter of conscience, but not in the way the vaccine refusers would like to think. Conscience is involved in making the moral decision to vaccinate, to protect not only our own children, but the wider community… especially those who cannot be immunised due to compromised immune systems, being too young to receive vaccinations, or other legitimate medical reasons.

It is inaccurate to frame parents’ decision not to vaccinate their eligible child as a matter of conscience, in any way similar to a person’s refusal to participate in a war; it’s a matter of fear-driven misinformation – not morality – influencing a decision, which tragically robs children of protection against disease.

I have sympathy with the urge to mistrust something which is being perceived as a direction from the government (I am a skeptic after all – blind acceptance is not one of my fortes), but we’ve got to stand back and look at the evidence here. While some might find the tactics of “No Jab, No Play” and “No Jab, No Pay” policies heavy handed, their goal is to protect lives. I urge people to please not let their feelings on our current governments and these policies influence their view of the science supporting vaccination.

I’d also like to add that throwing around emotive and hyperbolic words such as “fascist” and “enforce” aren’t adding much reason to the narrative, to be frank – and they’re both inaccurate. While Leunig argues that:

… he was not saying that the government was fascist, but that every government could have a “fascist moment” or make “fascist decisions”.

The cartoonist argued that “fascist” was just another word for authoritarian.

“Why can’t we name something for what it is?,” he said.

“Fascist is just another name for totalitarian. What are we afraid of about this word?

“I am a cartoonist who uses the words that are real. I don’t want to pussyfoot around here.”

I would argue that “fascist”, while used colloquially as a denigration to suggest authoritarianism, is inescapably linked to fascist regimes, in the same way that “nazi” recants the National Socialist German Worker’s Party and Hitler. It’s an incredibly strong word to use, with specific connotations. Leunig is welcome to invoke such connotations of course, but I think it disingenuous for him to defend “fascist” as being “just another word for authoritarian”.

I also take issue with the suggestion that the “No Jab, No Play” and “No Jab, No Pay” policies are equivalent to enforced mass medication. Putting aside the pedantic point that vaccines are preventative biological agents and are not technically classified as medications, I think that “enforced” is too strong a word for these policies. Parents still have a choice to refuse to vaccinate their children, though the consequences for not doing so (risk of disease, disability and death aside) will be somewhat harder to live with. Alternative arrangements will need to be made by the families of preschoolers in Victoria whose parents refuse vaccination but require childcare. Vaccine refusing families nationwide who rely on the family benefits which are to be revoked under “No Jab, No Pay” will do it tougher financially. It could be argued that there’s some coercion involved in both of these policies, but it isn’t mandatory enforcement.

As you may have guessed by now, I’m actually with Leunig to a degree; I do think that the ethical issues surrounding “No Jab, No Play” and “No Jab, No Pay” policies need to be examined carefully. At the risk of being quoted out of context by anti-vaccination campaigners, I am somebody who is very firmly in the pro-vaccination camp and there are parts of these legislations that I am a not comfortable with. In an ideal world, parents would not require any loss of benefits in order to be prompted to vaccinate their children, they’d do so because they understood the importance of protecting both their kids and the wider community from disease.

Indeed, with the proposed policies requiring children to be vaccinated (unless medically exempt), before being permitted to attend preschool services, or their families granted government payments, we could invoke the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child, which determine that children have the right to access education and social welfare. When discussing the rights of children, I think that it is important to note that the treaty also recognises the right of children to access quality healthcare, including preventative healthcare. This is an obligation that the parents who refuse to vaccinate their children are failing to meet.

I think that we also need to consider the right of children who attend preschool services to do so in a safe environment, particularly those children who are unable to be vaccinated due to medical reasons. I cannot fathom the experiences of parents of children with cancer, who on top of dealing with their children’s illness, have the added worry that they will be exposed to a vaccine preventable disease when participating in community life. I imagine that knowing that the children their kids interact with on a daily basis were offering them as much protection as possible would alleviate some of the stress in their lives, and it would certainly reduce the risk of potentially fatal illness.

One of my concerns is that strong government policies such as these run the risk of further polarising fringe groups who oppose vaccination, removing them from discussion and reinforcing their fear and mistrust. Conversely, these policies may shift some people from closer to the middle ground, those who are merely a little hesitant, over the fence – and I very much hope that these people have compassionate GPs, or contact with people such as the Northern Rivers Vaccination Supporters, who can listen to their concerns and reassure them about the decision they’re making.

A previous Leunig cartoon which may be interpreted as being anti-vaccination, via Leunig's website.

A Leunig cartoon from April 2015 which may be interpreted as being anti-vaccination, via Leunig’s website.

So while there is certainly discussion to be had on the ethics of immunisation legislation, I think that it needs to happen very carefully, with full acknowledgement that vaccination is the safest and most effective way to protect our children from vaccine preventable diseases. Without stressing the importance and efficacy of vaccination, we risk giving people an incomplete message on the issue, and providing anti-vaccination campaigners with cartoons and quotes which they can frame with misinformation and use to try and further their cause.

It would be a terrible thing to use your freedom of expression on a nationwide platform to espouse the virtues of freedom of choice, then express yourself in such a way that some people may become focused on the ethics of policy without being mindful of the science supporting vaccination.

To be clear, I support Michael Leunig’s freedom of expression, just as I support parents’ freedom to choose whether or not to immunise their children. But with those freedoms come consequences; and I want both Michael Leunig and parents who refuse to vaccinate to be aware of the facts about immunisation, the potential outcomes of their actions, and for them to make conscientious decisions.

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.

Crank Magnetism

Much to the delight of his unashamedly geeky parents, my son Oscar is rather enthusiastic about science. While at five years of age he’s fairly certain that he’s settled on a career in paleontology, he hasn’t yet ruled out other sciences – so we’re more than happy to give him access to microscopes, telescopes, do kitchen based chemistry experiments and physics at bath time (alongside the occasional trip to hunt for fossils or visit a natural history museum).

Geeky parenting is an absolute joy – indulging the kids’ curiosity about the world around them, seeing what hypotheses they come up with to explain their experiences, suggesting ways that they can find out information. In addition to plenty of hands-on exploring and experimenting, we view YouTube videos, do image searches (SafeSearch ON!) and look through books for information and ideas.

His girlfriend is Charlene the Human Skull Model, they sing lovely duets.

“Magnet Science” with our lovely model, Scott the Visible Australian Soap Star

 

So for Christmas, alongside Lego and Minecraft toys, Oscar received a few books – a couple of them science-related. One, “Magnet Science”, seemed rather nifty and engaging. It contained a selection of magnets, a (mercifully sealed) container of iron filings, and a series of experiments to perform, reminiscent of the sorts of projects I grew up with on The Curiosity Show. “Make a fishing game”, “make a compass”, “construct an electromagnet (under parental supervision)” – all with brief explanations of the science behind what was occurring. Fantastic.

Until I spotted the last page, titled “Facts and Feats”.

Click to Embiggen

Click to Embiggen

Magnet Medicine

Magnetic therapy is an alternative medicine practice using magnetic fields. No one knows for definite how it works, but supporters of the therapy believe it helps to restore health by improving circulation, as the magnets attract the iron in the blood, increasing the supply of oxygen to the source of the pain. Others say the magnets reduce the ‘negative energy’ in the body.

Oh boy.

“No one knows for definite how it works?”

Nobody has proven that it works, nor shown a mechanism by which it can work, other than the placebo effect.

The supporters of the therapy who believe that magnets attract the iron in the blood? They’re wrong. Iron bound to haemoglobin is no longer ferromagnetic. Which is a good thing, else we’d be hemorrhaging frequently as we walked around our homes and we would literally explode when undergoing an MRI scan.

As for others saying that magnets reduce the negative energy in the body… you can’t get much more meaningless than that. ‘Negative energy’ is a vague concept, supported by the anecdotal ‘others say’. These are empty words.

Why is this in my child’s book on science? This is not scientific at all – the claim is pseudoscientific and its presentation is incredibly uncritical. Furthermore, merely Googling “Magnet therapy” returns several pages explaining that magnet therapy is a pseudoscience. I am utterly dumbfounded as to how on earth an author who did so well designing and explaining experiments over the previous forty seven pages of this book – and they managed to write about electromagnetism in a manner appropriate for children – could get it so very wrong on the last page.

And it isn’t as though there is a short supply of legitimate “Facts and Feats” relating to magnets. The second paragraph on the page is an excellent example, it discusses the speeds reached by a Maglev train. Fascinating – and real!

The third paragraph, though…

Human magnet

Aurel Raileanu from Romania set the world record for being the strongest human magnet. Magnetic objects, including televisions, spoons and irons stick to his skin! He doesn’t know how he does it, but says he focuses his mind and releases the feeling of magnetic attraction, which makes even the heaviest objects stick to him.

… Human Magnets!

Have you ever seen a child stick a spoon to their nose? It’s a cute little parlour trick, utilising the angle of the nose, the hairlessness and smoothness of the skin and some moisture from breath or a little naturally occurring sebum to reduce friction, to make it appear that the spoon is stuck to the nose.

People practicing Human Magnetism – oftentimes claimed to be a mystical or mysterious power – are very likely using the same tricks as the child with a spoon on their nose to balance objects on their faces and bodies. Objects – always with a smooth surface – are often placed against the upper chest, upper arms, upper back, at the top of a slightly protruding belly or on the face; all body surfaces which are not quite perpendicular to the ground. Human Magnets tend to have hairless smooth skin, which, combined with everyday skin secretions, create a surface which is non-slippery. Skin elasticity also plays a part; our skin tends to conform somewhat to surfaces against which it is pressed, particularly when force is applied.

Out of vanity I’m hesitant to describe the ideal skin for Human Magnetism tricks as being ‘oily’, but I do seem to be able to attach more pieces of cutlery to myself when I haven’t showered for a few hours.

Jojo the Human Magnet is available for your next function at competitive rates!

Every skeptic needs a spoon trick!

There are some simple tests to check whether magnetism – rather than balance, smoothness and skin secretions – is causing objects to apparently stick to somebody who claims to be a Human Magnet. Suggested by our friend James Randi: a sprinkling of talcum powder over the skin. This reduces the friction and stickiness of skin, generally causing items to slip. Benjamin Radford suggests a light coat of oil. Thin clothing or a thin layer of plastic should also show that magnetism isn’t the cause of the objects sticking, as surely magnetic force ought to be able to penetrate these materials.

No human magnet has ever been tested and shown to emit a magnetic field which has produced significant readings from a gaussmeter, nor has the more simple test involving holding a compass near a Human Magnet shown evidence of a magnetic field. Given that some Human Magnets claim to also be able to attract glass and ceramic objects (with smooth surfaces, unsurprisingly), it is possible that the claimed ‘magnetism’ is some force of attraction other than the magnetism we’re familiar with – in which case, ‘magnetism’ as a term is rendered as vague as the word ‘energy’ used in similar circumstances and the story of Aurel Răileanu has even less reason to appear in the Magnet Science book.

And yet, despite how simple it is to debunk their claims, Human Magnets still make the news every few years – a boy covered in spoons, a woman with coins stuck to her face, and Aurel Răileanu – purported world record holder, with his irons and television. I can only guess that the media who report on Human Magnets feel that a fantastic sounding story is more interesting than the simple trick that’s being performed. They may well be right.

I’m quite a fan of parlour tricks, stage magic and illusions; they’re a fun way to encourage critical thought. I love the combination of awe, delight, laughs and wonder that they can evoke. If I don’t know how a trick is performed, I have a rather enjoyable puzzle to try and work out. When I do, I can enjoy the skill of the performer – be it their sleight of hand, their take on presentation or whatever twist they’ve put on an old trick to make it their own.

What I don’t enjoy, however, is when a trick is presented as the truth.  Especially when it’s in a kids’ book purporting to be educational and scientific.

As for telling kids that magnetic therapy is anything but pseudoscience… I can only hope that people who buy sciencey books for children also have an inclination to introduce them to and encourage critical thought and skepticism.

Incidentally, the phrase from which the title for this post is derived is a slightly different phenomena. “Crank Magnetism” is a phrase to describe the tendency of people who are invested in one form of pseudoscience or conspiracy to be rather likely to also subscribe to others. The folk over at RationalWiki have put together a comprehensive explainer over here, which may come in handy in your travels.

Mummy Instinct

Well. I have been incredibly busy catching up with uni work after taking a break over the holiday season and have not been able to find the time to write a blog post for a couple of weeks now. As I don’t like to go for too long without putting something up here, have this:

mummyinstinct01

I feel very fortunate that my “mummy instinct” is to understand the importance of evidence and reason when making decisions regarding my children’s health and wellbeing.

Please feel free to share this image if you find it entertaining or pertinent to a discussion that you’re having.

Image created using Success Kid template on quickmeme.com.

 

Further Reading:

Parenting and the False Dichotomy Between Nature and Technology

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.

blog20121101_03

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):

blog20121101_07

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.

blog20121101_08

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.

Parenting and the False Dichotomy Between Nature and Technology

NB: The quote is actually from ‘Christiane Northrup MD’, more about her in ‘Further Reading’. The Facebook page I saw the above image on was not the one mentioned in the bottom left hand corner.

A couple of months ago, I happened upon this quote posted by a breastfeeding support and advocacy page on Facebook. As a new mother, I visited many such pages while I navigated my way through learning to breastfeed, alongside other pages and communities relating to various aspects of parenting infants.

The text in the above image demonstrates an ideology that I see expressed often in the realm of online parenting information; the simplistic appeal to nature and subsequent derision of technology.

I’ll quickly state that I do not dispute that breast milk is an ideal food for babies*. I’m not quite willing to call this part of the quote out as being a straw man argument, but it is very rare in my experience to see the claim made that formula is as good as breast milk. As such, I’m not quite sure who or what the quote is intended to be in response to. Perhaps this would be more evident if the quote was not taken out of context, but for the purposes of this article, I think it appropriate to leave it as the short excerpt that has been used to create this meme.

What I wish to focus on in this post is the notion suggested in the second part of the last sentence. On reading it, my immediate response is to declare that yes, sometimes relatively new human innovations are superior to the products of several million years of evolution.

The poliomyelitis virus is the product of three million years of evolution. Relative newcomers, the range of polio vaccines that have been developed over the past fifty years have fortunately proven to be superior to the poliomyelitis virus. As a result, we are now on the verge of eradicating polio.

Snakes are evolutionary success stories and populate every continent aside from Antarctica. The administration of antivenom, a medical technology, allows us a greater chance at surviving their bites.

Some of the high risk events associated with childbirth – uterine rupture, cord accidents and other complications with delivery, post partum haemorrhage – are natural. Modern obstetric medicine with its comparatively new technologies is able to intervene when required and save the lives of both infants and their mothers.

In some developing nations, a varied diet is unaffordable and people rely on easy to grow rice to make up the larger part of their sustenance. To help combat morbidity and mortality caused by nutrient deficiencies, the humanitarian Golden Rice Project have created a genetically modified variety of rice which accumulates bioavailable beta carotine in its grains. Golden Rice is still in the development phase, the eventual goal is to distribute seed to farmers free of royalties, which they will be able to grow as they do traditional rice varieties, saving and replanting seed.

I hope the above examples not only illustrate that those things which are considered to be natural are not always the safest or most beneficial for us, but in the case of the latter two, that the natural can work in conjunction with technology to offer optimal outcomes.

My concern with separating out that which is considered ‘natural’ and that which is considered to be a product or tool of technology is the risk that we turn our backs on the safest or most beneficial choices in order to maintain an idealisation of the natural that is not always reasonable. The appeal to nature argument is used to sell many products and ideas, from harmless natural baby toiletries and foods to dangerous concepts such as rejecting vaccination and using homeopathic treatments in lieu of seeking legitimate medical care.

Automatically equating ‘natural’ with ‘safe’ is a presumption we must be mindful of. Likewise, whether we consider a concept or product to be natural should hopefully be of less relevance than whether it is the safest and most effective option.

I would like to suggest an alternative means by which we can claim our power as women (or, indeed, as parents and human beings in general). We can equip ourselves with a greater range of useful tools in our lives if we assess individual concepts and products on their own merit, rather than pigeonholing them as natural or otherwise. If we reject the notion that nature and technology are diametrically opposing notions, we can embrace both and make use of all available resources to facilitate the best possible wellbeing for ourselves and our loved ones.

Further Reading:

Christiane Northrup, MD: Science Tainted with Strange Beliefs – by Harriet Hall MD on Science Based Medicine

An Open Letter to My Fellow “Natural Parents” – by Madonna Behen on Redbook

The Golden Rice Project

* I don’t think that I am able to make this post citing such a highly emotive example without making a short statement on my position on the breastfeeding/formula feeding issue. As somebody who wanted to breastfeed my kids, I have been fortunate and tenacious enough to have succeeded – my son self-weaned at seventeen months and my daughter is still at it at the time of posting. The accepted consensus is that breast is best; I’m down with that and happily support any woman who wishes to breastfeed their child. However, if a woman chooses to formula feed, it’s her business, just as choosing to breastfeed is mine. If a woman is unable to breastfeed and wished to, I acknowledge her efforts, am sorry that things didn’t work out as she’d wanted and hope that she is feeling okay.

It is possible to advocate breastfeeding without being critical of those who formula feed. I’ve seen some awful attempts to guilt-trip women who formula feed and I do not understand what these critics are trying to accomplish. There’s no shortage of pro-breastfeeding information out there, it is unlikely that a woman who is already formula feeding their baby needs educating about the advantages of breast milk, nor is it common for women to attempt to re-induce lactation. I would ask those who make negative statements about formula feeding to question how constructive they are being. Which is of more use, a shamed, ostracised or hostile mother or a mother who feels supported and not judged?

Additionally, I acknowledge that a baby’s nourishment can be almost all-encompassing during their first year of life, but within the context of an entire childhood, it is a relatively small factor compared with whether the child is loved, supported, able to develop and express their identity and safe.