Why the fight against antivaccinationists is important


The risks we face in our lives have been utterly transformed by vaccines. With the exception of clean water, no other health intervention has been as effective: More than 20 million lives in the past 25 years have been saved. Our parents and grandparents faced the risk of illness and death from diseases like smallpox, diptheria, and polio as a fact of life. Mass vaccination completely eradicated smallpox, which had been killing one in seven children. Polio is next.  Public health campaigns have also eliminated diptheria, and reduced the incidence of pertussis, tetanus, measles, rubella and mumps dramatically. More than 100 million infants are now immunized against the most common preventable childhood illnesses each year, saving more than 2.5 million young lives each year.

Yet as long as there have been vaccines, there has been those that oppose them.  I’ve spent quite a bit of time outlining the tactics and tropes of the antivaccine movement as well as considering ways in which health professionals and science advocates can improve the way they respond to antivaccinationism. And this battle continues, after over 100 years of immunization, and over two dozen diseases becoming vaccine-preventable.

Debating antivaccinationists can be dispiriting, especially if you’re a health professional. Getting personal insults in your email regularly isn’t encouraging. Your peers may not share your understanding of the issue, and your passion for it. Personally, I see  vaccine advocacy as part of public health advocacy, and part of my responsibility as a health professional, a science advocate and a parent. I’ve spent a lot of time along with my fellow bloggers at Skeptic North and Science-Based Medicine discussing the tactics of the antivaccine movement, and helping to educate and motivate. There is evidence that antivaccinationists can influence vaccination decisions.  There are four main tactics that they use:

  • Skewering the science of vaccine safety and efficacy, while trying to create legitimacy for unfounded or discredited theories of harm.
  • Shifting the hypotheses and the villain, from MMR, to thimerosal, to other “toxins”, and more recently, “too many, too soon”.
  • Censoring criticism, whether it’s at Age of Autism, Mothering.com, or other antivaccine sites that delete comments or restrict access to their events.
  • Attacking the opposition – whoever is an advocate.

How do antivaccinationists attack? Viciously. Imagine you’re the parents of a child that died of a vaccine-preventable disease. And you’ve used this tragedy to publicly advocate for improved vaccination programs, which could have prevented the death of your child. What do you think the response would be? If you’re Toni and David McCaffery, parents of of Dana McCaffrey, this isn’t a thought exercise – it’s exactly what happened. Dana died at four weeks old of pertussis (whooping cough). The reaction from antivaccinationists? Heinous:

 The couple has been accused of being on the payroll of drug companies; they have had their daughter’s death questioned and mocked; they have even been told to “harden the f . . . up” by an opponent of vaccination.

“The venom directed at us has just been torture and it’s been frightening, abhorrent and insensitive in the extreme,” says Toni, who has not had the strength to talk about this until now.

The invasion of the McCafferys’ grief started the day before they buried their baby girl. Meryl Dorey, who heads up the Bangalow-based Australian Vaccination Network, rang the head of the North Coast Area Health Service, Paul Corben, to demand Dana McCaffery’s autopsy reports. She wanted proof that Dana actually died of whooping cough. Dorey has no medical training, but she wrote this on a blog defending her actions.

And this was just the beginning of the despicable action from the Orwellian-named Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), and its head, Meryl Dorey.

One man, a regular on AVN forums, emailed the family via Dana’s website. The email reads: “It must be tragic to lose a daughter and I wish you all sympathy and trust that God delivers unto you. We find it amazing that some people firmly believe that God was not perfect.

“Apparently, according to these people, God forgot to add the heavy toxic metals, pig cells, chicken cells etc that are found in vaccines, sorry, but I believe Dana passed away because of different reasons than you claim. All the same, please accept my sympathy for your tragic loss.”

Unbelievable, isn’t it? It seems the AVN has had a bit of a free ride in Australian media in a misguided attempt to introduce “balance” into discussions on vaccine safety and efficacy. Given the data overwhelmingly support vaccine, the result was “false balance” which allowed the AVN to create fear, uncertainty and doubt based on implausible, refuted or even demonstrably false information. Through the tireless work of Rachael Dunlop and other science advocates within and outside Australia, the tide has turned on the AVN. In November 2012 it was ordered by the Department of Fair Trading to change its name.

Why are the McCafferys’ telling this story now? Because they want to share honest information about the need for vaccines. Tori, Dana’s mother writes:

You may see an article in the Sunday Telegraph dated 26 March 2013 regarding the vilification we have been subjected to since Dana died.

Why have we released the details now?

1. After seeing all the recent coverage on vaccination and the number of parents that have fears, we felt it is important to remind people to be very careful of the sources of your information. There is so much vitriol and lunacy out there. Please understand, these diseases are not benign and are not beneficial, they are dangerous for our most vulnerable – who depend on all of us to protect them.

2. We feel safer since the NSW Parliament passed amendments to the Health Care Complaints Act, providing the HCCC with greater powers to investigate health services that spread dangerous lies and misinformation that can risk the health of the community.

3. Despite our repeated requests, the AVN has not retracted the litany of lies about our daughter and our family on their website and associated sites around the world. This is not only hurtful and disrespects our daughter, it could mislead a parent and place a child at risk of catching a vaccine-preventable disease and worse, not seek appropriate medical attention. That was the purpose of our HCCC complaint.

4. Our greatest heartbreak is that we were never warned about Whooping Cough or told that adults need boosters. We promised Dana we’d fix it, and there’s still such a long way to go:

We all need to work together:

• Children and adults need regular boosters – on-time – to maintain immunity

• We all need to be on alert for symptoms

• Doctors need to be vigilant and test people with a persistent cough – especially tiny babies

• Governments need to proactively educate the community about infectious diseases and the importance of vaccination; dispel the myths and address fears with fact.

We love and miss you everyday Dana
Love Mummy and Daddy

We all owe a great debt of gratitude to the McCaffrey family for turning their tragedy into positive advocacy that saves lives. After all, if you could prevent the following, wouldn’t you do everything in your power to do so? (Warning: this video of an infant with pertussis may be distressing to watch):

If you’d like learn more about the AVN please follow Stop the Australian (Anti)vaccination Network on Facebook.

4 thoughts on “Why the fight against antivaccinationists is important

    • Thankfully he did Janet. The documentary it is from is called “Jabbed” and was aired on Australia’s SBS TV network last night. Well worth a view.

  1. just heartbreaking to hear how people have treated this family, after everything they’ve been through. i will never understand why people prefer their tinfoil hats to science.

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