The Skeptic Zone

RACGP on homeopathy, the Good Thinking Society, and Homeopathic Owl – O Rly?

The following is a transcript of Evidence, Please on The Skeptic Zone Podcast #346 {Permalink}.

This week, news about that continual thorn in our side, homeopathy!

First up, I’d like to read you a media release from the Royal Australian College of General Practicioners, which was picked up as a news story by several media outlets this week.

From racgp.org.au,

Homeopathy treatment not effective and should not be prescribed

3 June 2015

GPs should not prescribe homeopathic remedies for their patients and pharmacists should not sell or recommend the use of homeopathic products, according to the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP).

Releasing its position statement on homeopathy, RACGP President Dr Frank R Jones said GPs practiced in evidence-based medicine and there was robust evidence homeopathy had no effect beyond a placebo as a treatment for various clinical conditions.

“Given this lack of evidence, it does not make sense for homeopathy products to be prescribed by GPs or sold, recommended or supported by pharmacists,” Dr Jones said.

The RACGP position statement maintains that homeopathic alternatives should not be used in place of conventional immunisation.

“It is irresponsible to claim that homeopathic vaccines are a proven alternative to conventional vaccination. The reality is that these alternatives do not prevent diseases or increase protective antibodies and there is no plausible biological mechanism by which these alternatives could prevent infection.

“Individuals and the community are exposed to preventable diseases when homeopathic vaccines are used as an alternative to conventional immunisation,” Dr Jones said.

Another risk of homeopathy is that people delay or avoid seeing a GP – exacerbating their condition through delayed care – and reject conventional medical approaches.

“Spurious claims made by homeopathic practitioners and retailers can mislead people about the effectiveness of conventional medicine and this can result in serious health consequences,” Dr Jones said.

The position statement also outlines that many private health insurers subsidise homeopathy through ‘extras’ cover when alternative evidence-based treatment methods are available.

“Whilst we appreciate and recognise the right of patients who may choose or seek homeopathy, unfortunately all taxpayers are funding homeopathy via the Federal Government’s private health insurance rebate,” Dr Jones said.

“The RACGP is concerned that health insurance premiums continue to rise as significant subsides are paid for homeopathy and other natural therapies. In 2013-14 health insurers paid out $164 million in benefits for natural therapies, an increase of almost 60% from 2010-11.”

Earlier this year the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) analysed the scientific evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy in treating a range of clinical conditions. It concluded that homeopathy produces no health benefits over and above that of a placebo, or equivalent to that of another treatment.

While all of this is really good – and an excellent public statement to be making to help the population become more aware of issues surrounding homeopathy… the fact that it doesn’t work, that something that doesn’t work is being sold in pharmacies, that something that doesn’t work is being included in taxpayer subsidised private health cover and is driving up premiums… I can’t help but feel a little stunned that doctors and pharmacists would ever need to be told not to recommend homeopathy. How anyone who has studied medicine – pharmacology in particular – could give a moment’s thought to even allowing patients to select homeopathic treatment without an explanation as to its lack of efficacy – let alone
recommend it – is quite beyond me.

Still, the RACGP’s position statement is, like the NHMRC’s findings, more weight coming down on homeopathy.

Homeopathy in pharmacies is one of my greatest bug bears. It’s easy for people to consider its existence alongside evidence based treatments to be an endorsement for its efficacy, particularly given the credibility of pharmacists.

One argument as to why pharmacies stock homeopathy is that they’re being run as businesses, and there’s a public demand for homeopathic products. Which is frustrating, as they’re businesses which we rely on for vital health information and products (and discount glitter nail polish, an integral item for my personal well being). Pharmacies are businesses, but
they’re also an essential service – one that most of us need to use from time to time, one through which we rely on the services of a university trained professional.

Accepting the business model though, makes me wonder whether part of the push for change could come from consumer demand. Perhaps one day we could get a large enough percentage of the public to say no to homeopathy… and if a pharmacy chain removes it from its shelves, reward them with our custom.

This is highly idealistic, I realise. In the meantime, we do have groups such as Friends of Science in Medicine lobbying for the removal of non-evidence based products from pharmacy shelves – you can see what they’re up to and if you’re so inclined, lend them your support by going to scienceinmedicine.org.au.

"Dilution" by xkcd

“Dilution” by xkcd – https://xkcd.com/765/

Across and up to the UK now, where the Good Thinking Society have been campaigning to have homeopathy struck off of the NHS – that’s the National Health Service, akin to Medicare down here, which funds homeopathic hospitals! The campaign has had a great success so far, with extensive media coverage and Clinical Commissioning Groups – local area groups which organise the delivery of NHS services – reassessing their support for homeopathy – some
announcing that they will no longer be funding such.

As part of the Good Thinking Society’s efforts to examine and publicise what’s going on with NHS funded homeopathy in the UK, our eminent friend Michael Marshall investigated precisely what’s being sold by homeopathic pharmacies which supply the NHS… and came across something rather bizarre… an owl remedy!

Freeman’s homeopathic pharmacy in Glasgow lists all sorts of weird and wonderful remedies on their website, including three different remedies labeled “Owl”! Marsh decided to find out more about the owl remedy, and called Freeman’s.

What followed was a slightly surreal conversation, in which the pharmacy assistant informed Marsh that the remedy was made from owl feathers, and was prescribed by homeopathic “doctors” and practicioners not for owl allergies, but for people who were taking on the characteristics of owls, such as… not sleeping.

The entire conversation is available as a YouTube video, I’ll put a link in the show notes, as it’s well worth a listen – and a watch.

During the conversation, the homeopathic pharmacy assistant stated that homeopathic owl was for doctors and practicioners to prescribe, and not sold over the counter – yet the Good Thinking Society was able to purchase it online without a prescription, nor a warning that one is required. Hmm.

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Discoveries such as this, while disturbing in a sense, are also incredibly useful. The strange combination of absurdity and bulldust in the homeopathic owl expose caught not only the attention of skeptics and the like on social media, but also that of the Daily Mirror, which ran a story on the Good Thinking Society’s work around homeopathy and the case of the
owl remedy. A huge well done to the Good Thinking Society!

And you know, if you find something similarly bizarre… pursue more information and consider going public! Weirdness can be an excellent way to draw public and media attention to pseudoscience.

Finally, here’s a fantastic tweet which caught my eye from Andy Lewis, whose Twitter handle is @lecanardnoir:

Too right!

You can read more about the Good Thinking Society’s amazing work at goodthinkingsociety.org.

Until next week, have a hoot of a time!

A transcript of this report with links has been posted at my blog, which can be found on evidenceplease.net.

Psychics and Ghost Hunters and Skeptics, Oh My! The Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo 2014.

Early in October 2014, along with my Skeptic Zone cohorts and members of the Australian Skeptics, I was invited to attend the Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo in Casula, New South Wales. Held in the old Casula Powerhouse, reputed to be haunted, the expo featured a main floor with displays and stalls, a room in which several psychics were conducting readings and a main theatre where workshops and talks were taking place.

The Skeptic Zone contingent, Maynard, Richard and Jo.

The Skeptic Zone contingent, Maynard, Richard and Jo.

Frankly, I had utterly no idea what to expect, this being the first event I’d attended based around things we skeptics tend to be skeptical about. I wondered whether my lack of belief in the supernatural and tendency to question paranormal claims would be a source of conflict or hostility, and I wasn’t sure how I would feel, being immersed in a group of people with such different beliefs to my own. I took comfort in the fact that Richard Saunders had been invited to speak though, and that Australian Skeptics had been given a table on the main floor – surely we were welcome.

Skeptics! Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

Skeptics! Richard Saunders and Tim Mendham. Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

The expo organisers were kind enough to provide me with a media pass, so I decided that I would spend the day immersing myself in the workshops and talks that I had access to.

Before the workshops began, I had a bit of a wander around the tables that were set up in the main hall downstairs to see who was there and what sorts of things they were talking about or selling… and they were a varied bunch: ghost hunters, psychics, people concerned with auras, crystal sellers, all sorts of fun novelties (inflatable aliens and Edgar Allen Poe action figures were spotted!), people drawing portraits of spirit guides, people selling clothing. What stood out to me was that it was all quite… well, benign, really. I’m the sort of skeptic who struggles most with medical quackery; comparatively, I actually find the paranormal side of things quite fun. Not to say that I think that it’s all harmless. I worry about people handing money over to shonky psychics who aren’t on the up and up, I get a little concerned as to whether claims to be able to contact the deceased interfere with people’s grieving processes – but all in all, belief in the paranormal isn’t something I tend to feel any need to rail against.

 

A Witch’s Circle and a Visit to the Spirit Plane

The first workshop for the day was run by Kylie Allerton, titled “A Tarot Ritual – connecting you with the spirit world”. I entered the theatre to be greeted by an interesting scene on the stage – a circular mat was on the floor, surrounded by cushions – and on the mat were an assortment of items; a small cauldron sort of a thing, a little resin cast human skull, a couple of long bones, some goblet type cups, an incense burner and a deck of tarot cards.

I took a seat near the front of the theatre and took a moment to take everything in… for somebody who doesn’t tend to get too much exposure to the world of spirituality, it was an unusual scene for me to behold. Before long, the friendly people who were running the expo introduced Kylie Allerton.

Kylie is a psychic reader and practicing white witch who incorporates crystal balls, the tarot, and palmistry when conducting readings. Today she was working with the tarot – and us! The audience, there were perhaps forty of us, were invited to come and join her on stage and create a circle around the mat. It took me by surprise, frankly – I was expecting something akin to a lecture, rather than a participatory exercise – but I decided on the spot that I’d take the opportunity to join in and experience everything that I could.

I hoped that nobody would mind a non-believer taking part in what was about to happen… if such a thing as negative or cynical vibes exist, I aimed not to emit them. I did my best to be open to whatever occurred, to join in rather than pooh-pooh things that I don’t necessarily believe in.

Down we went, we formed a seated circle around the mat, some people removed their shoes and got comfortable. Kylie explained that we were going to do some summoning and that she’d give us each a tarot card to use as a portal to the spirit plane.

Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography

I was under the impression that purple would be appropriate, but it seems I could have just worn black. Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

We began the ritual with some breathing exercises, during which we were to consider a person who had passed away that we wished to get in contact with, and a question that we would like to ask them. The incense was heady and I focused on my breath, so I didn’t really spend a great deal of time paying attention to what the other participants were up to, but the room seemed incredibly calm. Then Kylie began to open a witch’s circle. This isn’t a subject that I know too much about, but she recited incantations, blessings and called upon the spirits of air and fire – when she did this, we joined in with a little chanting. Bones were struck together, something was set on fire and we were ready – Kylie walked around the circle with a deck of tarot cards held out face down and we were instructed to choose one each.

My chosen person who had passed away that I thought I’d like to have a conversation with was my beloved grandmother… and the tarot card that I had selected was The High Priestess. The character in this card struck me as rather matriarchal – a wise woman, as I considered my grandmother to be. Some others, particularly those who had cards from the minor arcana (sort of the equivalent of numbered cards, rather than face cards) didn’t see immediate relevance in the cards that they had selected. Kylie invited us to think about our first impressions on seeing the pictures on the cards, to study the colours and details, and offered to chat with people throughout the day if they wanted a hand interpreting their selection.

The High Priestess.

The High Priestess.

Next, we used the cards to create portals to the spirit world. We followed Kylie’s instructions and examined them with our regular eyes, held them to our foreheads and examined them with our third eyes, put our cards down and visualised them with our third eyes, then imagined them growing, to the size of a painting, to the size of a doorway, into a doorway, which we then stepped through.

I found this fairly simple to go along with, it was much like participating in guided mediation, and I went with whatever came to mind as we were taken through a scenario of walking into our cards, through a landscape – this was the spirit world – then toward our deceased loved one, who we conversed with. The background of my card seemed to be tropical fruit, so I imagined walking through a plantation of pineapples, which became a very odd forest, where I eventually met my grandmother. I remember my grandmother fairly well, I think – though I’m aware that our memories aren’t entirely reliable – I imagined a fairly believable conversation with her (she wasn’t a believer when she was alive and acquiesced in our conversation that she was a composite of my memory and imagination). Then Kylie guided us through saying goodbye, heading back across our landscapes, back through our doorways and told us to shrink the cards back down to their actual size again.

The circle was closed and we toddled off with our cards.

 

Ghost Hunters!

The next session, “Communicating with the Dead – Modern Techniques and Victorian Twists”, was with Rob and Anne from Eastern States Paranormal, a paranormal investigative team based in NSW.

Rob and Anne were very affable speakers and presented us with an overview of their experiences attempting to communicate with the dead and the techniques that they’ve used to do so.

We were taken through some audio of different techniques they’ve used in reputably haunted locations to contact the spirits – singing, stomping, chanting, singing in tones which clash. Anne and Rob played us some recordings of EVPs, electronic voice phenomenon, which are sounds found on electronic recordings that some interpret as ‘spirit voices’.

Eastern States Paranormal... ESP! Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

Eastern States Paranormal, or… ESP! Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

The audio recordings were of varying quality and I cannot say whether or not what we were hearing were the voices of spirits, but I was incredibly aware of the concept of pareidolia while throughout this presentation – pareidolia being our tendency to recognise patterns within random stimuli, with or without suggestion. It’s an interesting phenomenon: we hear phrases when songs are played backwards, we see faces in the surface of mars. I feel that a desire or expectation to see or hear something, sometimes combined with suggestion, can account for many things which are heard in EVPs, or seen in spirit photography, which was also presented in Eastern States Paranormal’s talk.

Toward the end, we were given an interesting rundown on the history of different modalities which people have used to attempt to contact the spirit world – Ouija Boards, tipping tables and the like. As a skeptical type, I suspect that the ideomotor effect comes into play when such devices are being used, but I find them to be fascinating curiosities.

Anne and Rob struck me as kind and good humoured people – they were curious about contacting the other side, they were very respectful in their approach and they demonstrated a genuine desire to help others who are experiencing otherwordly concerns.

 

Mitchell Coombes, Celebrity Psychic

After a break for lunch was the drawcard of the expo, Mitchell Coombes. Billed as “Australia’s most trusted psychic medium” and awarded 2011 Psychic of the year, Mitchell Coombes is an author, appears on radio and television regularly and was one of the contestants on season one of The One, a reality tv show pitting psychics against one another, on which our very own Richard Saunders was a judge.

While I’ve seen broadcasts of many psychic shows on television and YouTube and have seen Mitchell himself on daytime television, this was the first time I’d been an audience member… it was a very different experience. Mitchell is a very charismatic speaker; he’s high-paced, energetic and very good at engaging his audience. After he had introduced himself and told an anecdote about a client who wasn’t certain she’d had an experience with contact from the afterlife – of course she had! – Mitchell asked us to help him raise the energy of the room by standing up, stomping our feet, clapping our hands and cheering. It reminded me of being in an evangelical church or a faith healing service – the crowd went wild and the excitement in the room was palpable.

Mitchell then seemed to receive messages from the spirit world to be passed on to members of the audience.

I found this part a little difficult. A couple of days prior, I’d been chatting with Richard about the talk he was going to present and one of the things he covered were questions that psychics can use to gain more information from the audience: “I’m getting an ‘A’ name”, “I’m getting a blue car”, etcetera. Well, Mitchell did get an A name, but the car (or motorcycle) was red.

Mitchell Coombes speaks with an audience member. Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

Mitchell Coombes speaks with an audience member. Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

The audience did seem to get a lot out of his readings though – there was a lot of laughter, a few tears. I’d recommend that anyone skeptical of psychics attend such a show, experiencing the emotion in the room gave me a greater appreciation of how psychics can interact with their audiences. Usually when I see readings done, I’m able to rewind, rewatch and analyse while removed from the situation – live shows are a very different experience to witness than recorded sessions.

 

Energetic Healing

Next up was Sue Bishop, presenting a workshop on “Energetic Healing – are your thoughts and feelings making you sick?” Sue is a metaphysician, psychic, teacher and author and is the co-founder and director of the Chiara College of Metaphysics, which offer courses on metaphysics, parapsychology, spiritual healing and intuitive sciences.

This session was the closest the expo came to presenting what I felt was questionable health advice, I did struggle with some of it a little. Sue believes that blocked charkras can be responsible for disease, that tending to the spiritual self can prevent disease from taking hold and that energetic healing can be conducted, attending to a person’s auras, to manage their wellness. Sitting and listening to her speak about these things and tell us of how she prevented the diabetes that she had a genetic predisposition toward by making lifestyle changes and letting go of troubles from her past, I frequently wanted to ask her where her knowledge came from and how it was that she knew it to be true – but interrupting her talk would have been very rude. I would be curious to speak with her more about her beliefs in the future though.

Sue then had us come to the stage for an energetic healing workshop – we were to pair up with strangers and prepare for the first exercise. My partner was a sweet woman around my own age, and I found myself worrying that she would feel that I was being somewhat disingenuous, being a skeptic taking part in something which may be important to her. I took part in the exercises with good intentions, absolutely wished her well and followed the instructions that Sue gave as best as I could.

First was an exercise in which we were instructed to take turns channeling white light into our crown chakras, then focusing to make that light either cool fast moving blue or warm slow red, then passing it to our partners, who had to guess what colour light they had been given. My partner did the channelling first and was surprised that I’d guessed correctly that she’d aimed to pass me blue. Frankly, the odds were fifty-fifty to begin with; then I took into consideration that cool blue was much more appealing than warm red under the hot stage lights and that my partner had an expression on her face which was somewhat serene and seemed to match better with the former colour choice.

Then it was my turn to pass a colour. I’m not entirely sure what white light, or energy, is – it isn’t visible light – but I know that a crown chakra is located around the forehead, so I imagined a beam of literal white light entering my forehead, moving through my body into my hands and turning a cool, calm, flowing blue. I made a gesture of passing it to my partner and imagined it moving to her hands, she told me it was blue. Again, I’m inclined to put it down to probability, environmental influences and visual cues – and perhaps the way Sue described the two colours as she was giving us our instructions made one seem more appealing than the other. I didn’t have an opportunity to note the trends of the entire group.

Our next exercise was to do the same, but instead of passing a colour, we were to pass an emotion from our memories. Sue asked us to keep our faces neutral as we recalled a time of joy, to be visualised as yellow, or hurt, which was to be visualised as a hot murky red. My partner went first and I watched her concentrate. Her face did remain fairly neutral, but she took some time before she was ready to pass to me and her body language struck me as quite unhappy. I was actually quite concerned for her – when she made a passing gesture to me, I told her that I felt that things weren’t too good for her and asked if she was okay. She was incredibly apologetic and all I could think to do was reassure her that I was fine, just concerned for her, and opt to send her joy in return. She seemed a little fragile and sad to me, perhaps she’d been through hard times, and I hoped that my good intentions were more important somehow than my lack of belief.

Then we moved to the front row of seats, partner number one standing behind partner number two, and performed what we were told was a short energy healing session. There was a lot to it… white universal energy from above, grounding earth energy from below, healing angels standing behind us. Chakras, auras, miasm, many different colours, silver filaments, fohat, akasha and ether, nadis – this was complicated stuff. Sue talked us through everything, she spoke of energy to visualise, what each aura looked like, that we were to transfer energy from various places through ourselves and to the person we were healing, massaging their auras. The massage was literal, we placed hands on one another, then raised them to where each aura was meant to exist around the body and sort of smoothed them out.

I wasn't sure how to draw 'miasm', but I did get distracted playing in Photoshop for a good fifteen minutes trying to show what I was visualising during the energy healing workshop.

I wasn’t sure how to draw ‘miasm’, but I did get distracted playing in Photoshop for a good fifteen minutes trying to show what I was visualising during the energy healing workshop.

 

When my partner was being the healer, I sat peacefully in my seat and listened to descriptions of colours and patterns and lights – frankly, it was quite pleasant to just sit passively. When asked how I felt afterward, I truthfully replied that I was ready to get into bed – it had been a long day and I welcomed more stillness!

Next was my turn to stand while my partner sat – I imagined light coming from above, energy coming from below, somebody standing behind me passing general healing sort of vibes through me. I put my hands on my partner’s shoulders, smoothed out what are to me imaginary auras and generally hoped that she was well. She seemed happy afterward.

One thing I really want to say about the energy healing workshop: I thought that it was very much to Sue’s credit that she mentioned several times that one of the things people do when they’re experiencing the onset of disease is to dismiss thoughts of going to their doctor, and that this was a problem. I agree with her strongly here – if things are potentially amiss, see your GP!

 

The Skeptical Perspective

The last talk of the day was from Richard Saunders; and I’d really like to credit the organisers of the Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo for inviting a skeptic to speak at their event. I feel that it’s a testament to their sense of enquiry that they’d include the perspective of a non-believer in their programme.

Richard Saunders with Spoony Action at a Distance.

Richard Saunders with some Spoony Action at a Distance.

I really wasn’t sure how Richard’s talk would be received. After introducing himself, explaining his background and what the Australian Skeptics get up to, Richard posed some questions about the nature of ghosts and spirits and the mechanisms people use to detect and communicate with them, discussed the fallibility of human memory and perception, noted some questions that psychics who aren’t on the up and up can use to gain information when cold reading, explained how paradolia works – and it was all really well received. I noticed a lot of people in the audience nodding along in agreement, a few “Ah ha!” moments and a few giggles at Richard’s jokes.

We had a few people approach us afterward to say that they were happy that we were there – including my partner from the energy healing workshop, who I was glad to have the opportunity to have a bit of a debriefing chat with and let her know that I wished her the best.

I really appreciated Richard’s approach to speaking at the expo. Perhaps some people expected a skeptic to be negative and make claims that the paranormal does not exist; there was none of that. He primarily approached the topics that he covered from a consumer affairs angle – with tips on not being cheated by psychics who weren’t on the up and up – and gave reassurances that human minds can very easily be fooled.

... but there were cosplayers!

Have you or your family ever seen a spook, spectre or ghost? Photo by Darrin Langbien Photography.

So, that was my day at the Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo.

I can’t honestly say that I saw any evidence of an afterlife, anybody’s ability to communicate with those who have passed on, the existence of psychic energy, spirits or the paranormal in general, but I did encounter many people who were welcoming, good humoured and kind hearted. I would like to thank the organisers and attendees of the Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo – I had a lot of fun and look forward to doing it again in 2015!

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Surprise Jawa! Picture by Darrin Langbien Photography.

 

This article originally appeared in The Skeptic Magazine Vol. 34 No. 4, and a version of it was on episode #312 of The Skeptic Zone Podcast {Permalink} – also in this episode, Maynard speaks with several expo attendees. With thanks to Darrin Langbien Photography and The Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo for professional photographs reproduced in this piece

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.

Sherri Tenpenny’s Australian Tour Cancelled #StopTenpenny

The following can also be heard on The Skeptic Zone #328 {Permalink}

A couple of weeks ago, I reported on anti-vaccine advocate Sherri Tenpenny’s planned speaking tour of Australia and the #StopTenpenny campaign. Well, there have been some developments… and at the risk of breaking continuity (and potentially the space-time continuum, who knows?), the big news first… on the 28th of January 2015, Sherri Tenpenny and tour organiser Stephanie Messenger announced that they had canceled their series of Australian seminars.

I left off my report on the 11th of January with news that all but two of the venues scheduled to host Tenpenny’s events had canceled their bookings. On January the 14th, Michael’s Oriental Restaurant in Brisbane made the announcement that they would no longer be hosting Sherri Tenpenny. Then on January 19th, an announcement appeared on the event page for the seminar to be held at Rydges Southpark Adelaide saying that the venue had cancelled the booking.

From the Eventbrite page:

“IMPORTANT NOTE:

The venue has cancelled our booking due to bullying by vested interests who do not believe in informed consent, free speech and respect for other’s rights, and who appear to support censorship of thought and science.

A new venue is being sought now so please book your ticket

You will be notified of the new venue in due time.

Thank you”

Indeed, the organisers of the event were still encouraging people to buy tickets, despite the fact that every venue had pulled out.

Meanwhile, those who had already bought tickets to the seminars were left with little information as to what was going on… no emails were sent, nor announcements made beyond the one I just read, which was placed on each Eventbrite event page.

The media coverage was equally as ambiguous. Tenpenny herself appeared on The Today Show, in which she referred to those who have campaigned against her seminars in Australia as “extremists” and mentioned that “bomb threats” have been recieved.

In fact, Sherri Tenpenny has mentioned “bomb threats” repeatedly to the media. Bomb threats are rather serious and ought to be treated as such – and of course, reported to the authorities for investigation.

The bomb threat that I have witnessed, and several people have made screen shots of, was left in a comment on the Facebook Page of Michael’s Oriental Restaurant.

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That’s not an okay thing to say.

Unfortunately, when Tenpenny has referred to the bomb threat, she has omitted mentioning who it came from… one of her supporters. The gentleman in question has a rather substantial history of making threats to vaccination advocates. Presumably he was angry at the prospect of Michael’s Oriental Restaurant potentially cancelling Tenpenny’s booking.

Now, I’m not willing to judge all of Tenpenny’s supporters by the actions of one person – all sorts of people take up causes without necessarily behaving in ways that are approved of by others who they campaign alongside. However, I am incredibly disappointed that Sherri Tenpenny has decided it acceptable to tell the media that bomb threats have been made without disclosing that they were made by one of her supporters. This omission, alongside claims that those who have campaigned against her seminars are “extremists” and “terrorists”, suggest to the public that one of her critics made the bomb threat, and I find this disingenuous to the extreme.

Some media outlets have, unfortunately, run with the “bomb threat” story without diligent investigation. I’m heartened though that others have looked into the issue further, witnessed the threat itself and its context, and have reported accurately.

The “bomb threat” was featured in a press release made by Sherri Tenpenny on the 28th of January, titled, “DR. SHERRI TENPENNY’S SPEAKING TOUR CANCELLED FOR REASONS OF SAFETY AND SECURITY

You know… I’ve been watching the #StopTenpenny campaign fairly closely and I have not witnessed any threats of violence coming from vaccination advocates. If I ever do witness such, I will condemn it incredibly strongly – threats and intimidation are utterly unacceptable. Any such behaviour should be reported to the authorities.

What I have witnessed are community members coming together to campaign against anti-vaccination seminars, which would have misinformed parents and parents to be on how to best protect the health of their children. They have done so via social media, petitions, letter writing to venues and MPs, collating publicly available information and blogging it, and engaging with the media.

To then have that characterised as a hateful campaign involving terrorism and extremism, to be compared with the Charlie Hebdo killers in Paris and the gunman behind the Sydney seige… well, how else are those who’ve had to back down going to frame their decision to do so. Claiming persecution perhaps fits their self and public images better than having to admit that an overwhelming number of Australians are willing to stand up and say no to the spread of misinformation that harms children.

I’d like to finish off with a few exerpts from Stephanie Messenger’s public announcement that the tour has been cancelled. To be frank, I find some of it a little bizarre… and I’m glad that she posted it, as perhaps a few people who came to hear of Sherri Tenpenny and Stephanie Messenger via the media coverage of the now cancelled tour, will have a look at where Stephanie Messenger is coming from and find it… a little less likely to be evidence-based.

From Stephanie Messenger.

“With the pro-vaccine extremists running their campaign of hate, intimidation, bullying, sabotage of businesses and threats of violence, we could not in good conscience put the attendees, speakers and new venue owners at risk of violence and harassment. We are mindful that at each seminar there were already people booked in who were bringing babies and children along and as we are all about protecting babies and children, we are not willing to go ahead and risk their safety.
When you are dealing with extremists, you just never know what they are capable of doing as we have recently seen with the Sydney siege, and also, the Paris violence against free speech.
These pro-vaccine extremists are actually:
terrorists against free speech – they are against people accessing all information to make an informed decision regarding this medical procedure,
they are in favour of human sacrifice as they know some babies are injured and killed by vaccines, but think this is OK ‘for the ‘perceived’ good of the community”,
they are against people sharing whatever information they want and therefore they are in favour of censorship,
they believe bullying is acceptable when they do it. Venue owners were threatened, harassed and intimidated to cancel the contracts we had in place. This is bullying.
Of course they deny all this, but please look to their actions – these speak louder than the words that they speak with their forked tongues. What you do and say in this world is a declaration of who you really are, and these people certainly made plenty of statements about themselves. Basically they are low vibrating souls who have behaved in rude, arrogant, vile, intolerant, controlling, abusive, manipulative and ignorant ways and so, have declared this is who they really are. They are so far away from truth that they are trying to hold on to their ignorant and fearful position not matter what. Just know, as higher vibrating souls who have learnt the truth, you can do much more to advance the truth for all to learn by speaking out whenever you have an opportunity.”

That’s about half of it – you can read the rest at your own leisure on the GanKinMan Foundation’s Facebook Page.

And for anyone wondering, this ‘low vibrating soul’ received an automatic refund for the full purchase price of the ticket, $79.92, from Stephanie Messenger, via Eventbrite and Paypal yesterday.

eventbrite

The #StopTenpenny Campaign against anti-vaccination seminars in Australia – Podcast Report

On The Skeptic Zone Podcast #325 {Permalink}, Evidence, Please has a report on the #StopTenpenny campaign against anti-vaccination seminars in Australia by US anti-vaccine campaigner Sherri Tenpenny.

Below are the links I’ve mentioned on the report, plus a transcript below the jump.

Social Media:

#StopTenpenny on Twitter
Stop Sherri Tenpenny from entering Australia Facebook Page

Blog Posts and Facebook Statements:

Reasonable Hank, “2015 anti-vaccine tour of Australia – the Tenpenny caravan of hurt
Diluted Thinking, “Anti-vaccination Seminars in 2015 by Stephanie Messenger
Diluted Thinking, “Healthy Lifestyles Naturally (HLN) – Seminars
Reasonable Hank, “Getting to know Sherri Tenpenny – a guide
Reasonable Hank, “Venues confirm being misled by anti-vaccine Messenger – Tenpenny tour
Stop the Australian (Anti)Vaccination Network, Statement regarding SAVN views and intentions are regarding Tenpenny’s visit

Media Reports:

4th January 2015
The Daily Telegraph, Jane Hansen, “Pro-vaccine lobby fight to stop US anti-vaccination campaigner Sherri Tenpenny lecturing in Australia

5th January 2015
Mamamia, Amy Stockwell, “This woman is a danger to children. And she’s coming to Australia.
The Daily Mail, Louise Cheer, “Should this woman be allowed to preach her anti-vaccine warnings in Australia? Parents’ outrage over American doctor’s child health seminars
news.com.au, Jane Hansen, “Uproar as US anti-vaccination campaigner Sherri Tenpenny announces trip to Australia
The Guardian, Michael Safi, “US anti-vaccine activist Dr Sherri Tenpenny plans Australian tour in March
The 7:30 Report, Jane Cowan, “Anti-vaccination lobby to blame for US return of preventable diseases say doctors” (video)

6th January 2015
3AW Radio, “Victorian Health Minister slams anti-vaccine movement
SBS, Shanthi Benjamin, “Calls for government to deny visa to US anti-vaccine activist
The Age, “Vaccine row about to boil over
Sunshine Coast Daily, Adam Davies, “Push to ban anti-vaccination campaigner from Aussie tour
ABC PM Radio, Bridget Brennan, “Controversial anti-vaccination campaigner to visit Australia
The Project TV, “Ms Information – the campaign against an anti-vaccination campaigner who plans a speaking tour in Australia

Times Live, Katharine Child, “No vaccine for Mandela-itis
The Age, Julia Medew, “Doctors want to bar anti-vaccination campaigner
ABC, Bridget Brennan, “Calls to deny visa to American anti-vaccination campaigner Sherri Tenpenny to speak in Australia
Junkee, Meg Watson, “Why You Should Join The Campaign To Stop Anti-Vaxxer Sherri Tenpenny Coming To Australia
Health of Ukraine, “Scandal in Australia : the inhabitants of the country are outraged at lectures about the dangers of vaccines” (in Russian)
Herald Sun, Phillipa Butt, “Health Minister urges organisers to cancel event featuring anti-vaccination activist Sherry Tenpenny
The Age, Nick Galvin, “ABC’s 7.30 under fire over anti-vaccination campaigner James Maskell

7th January 2015

New Zealand Herald, Daily Mail, “‘Deny her a visa’ – Australian outrage over anti-vaccination activist’s speaking tour
Queensland Health, Dr Sonya Bennett, “Queensland Health’s response to anti-vaccination discussions
The Guardian, Weekly Beast, “7:30 falls into vax wars
ABC News, “Sherri Tenpenny: Who is the controversial anti-vaccination campaigner planning to visit Australia?

ABC News, “Sherri Tenpenny: Sydney venue cancels seminar of US anti-vaccination campaigner” (Republished on Mamamia)
SBS News, “A controversial American anti-vaccination campaigner may be prevented from entering Australia.
ABC News , “Sydney venue cancels seminar of US anti-vaccination campaigner

8th January 2015

The Age, Eryk Bagshaw, “Sherri Tenpenny: US anti-vaccination campaigner’s Sydney and Melbourne shows cancelled
Sydney Morning Herald, Julia Medew, “Venues cancel events featuring US anti-vaccination campaigner Sherri Tenpenny
Medical Observer, “Doctors protest anti-vax speaking tour” (Login required)
3AW Radio, “Talking Health –  Sally Cockburn interviews Meryl Dorey and John Cunningham” (audio only)

9th January 2014

The Daily Mail, “More venues cancel anti-vax seminars
The Today Show, “Prof Peter McIntyre refutes Dr Tenpenny anti-vaccination beliefs” (video)

The Today Show, ‘The Grill’, “Misinformation tour by anti-vaccination activist” (video)
The Guardian, Oliver Milman, “Anti-vaccination campaigner compares critics to Charlie Hebdo attackers

11th January 2015

Sydney Morning Herald, “Anti-vaccination views are misguided – but not illegal
Daily Life, Jacqueline Maley, “Anti-vaccination advocate’s tour in tatters after most venues cancel
Sunrise TV, “Health experts urge parents to vaccinate kids” (video)

Skeptical Coverage:

Doubtful News, “Tenpenny’s anti-vaccination tour hits a snag in Australia (Update)
Society for Science Based Medicine, “They Do Not Shrug Down Under

Petitions:

change.org, “Petition to Refuse Sherri Tenpenny’s Visa into Australia
The Parenthood, “Petition to STOP anti-vax. campaigner Sherri Tenpenny #StopTenpenny

Event Links:

EventBrite Event Listing and Ticket Sales
GanKinMan Foundation
GanKinMan Foundation FB Page
Birth, Baby and Beyond FB Event

 

Report transcript:

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