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For many years the anti-vaccination lobby had the respect of the media. Any story on a television current affairs program about a disease where anyone had suggested vaccination would include a performance by a representative of an organisation supposedly committed to "informed choice" talking about the dangers of vaccines, usually backed up by interviews with some parents who were convinced that vaccines had caused suffering or damage to their children. Images of vaccine-damaged children would be shown to step up the emotion. If any comment was provided by a doctor it would usually be a few seconds at the end when the damage had already been done, and the doctors were invariably polite and full of platitudes. (There were some exceptions but they usually didn't get asked for comment a second time.)
Over the last year or so the situation has been changing, and the anti-vaccination lobby has been finding it much harder to have their say without being challenged. They are annoyed by this and claim that it is an infringement of their right to free speech for their opponents to have equal time.
One reason for the change in attitude of the media has been an upsurge in cases, and deaths, of childhood diseases that everyone thought had disappeared. As an example, the number of reported cases of whooping cough in the first three months of 2009 was 8,058, compared to 1,554 for the same period in 2008 and 1,677 average for the last five years. Bizarrely, the anti-vaccination lobby has lauded the increase and claim that it is evidence of the failure of vaccination to prevent disease. They claim that as it is obvious that the vaccine doesn't work it should be withdrawn to avoid endangering children. As one anti-vaccination campaigner put it, "Nobody ever died of whooping cough". At the time she said this she was appearing in a television program about a baby who had died from whooping cough!
I have sometimes been criticised for describing the anti-vaccination lobby as "anti-vaccination liars". I will admit that not everything they say is lies, because to be a liar you have to know that what you are saying is untrue. In many cases, what they have to say is simply an expression of ignorance about how medicine and the human body work. Much of the opposition is driven by forms of alternative medicine such as homeopathy and chiropractic which reject the idea that germs cause disease. There is also a large element of conspiracy theory in the opposition to vaccines, with the obvious one being that vaccines are just a means of increasing the profits of Big Pharma by billions of dollars. (It is interesting that in one recent year the total world expenditure on vaccines, while being several billions of dollars, was less than what one very large pharmaceutical company spent on promoting their products.)
There is another category of untruth-tellers, those who don't care about the truth of what they say as long as it progresses their agenda. I see this a lot in the anti-vaccination lobby, but once they have been told the truth and then repeat the untruth they must be moved to the "liars" category.
The current swine flu pandemic has really stirred up the anti-vaccination lobby and has brought out some wonderful examples of their use of free speech. I will finish with just a few gems. Most of these fall into the "don't care if it's true or not" class. It would be scary to think that anyone believed them.
You might think that I made that last one up. It was promoted on a web site run by Australia's leading anti-vaccination organisation. Not that they are opposed to vaccination of course, as can be seen from their slogan : "Love them, protect them, never inject them".
This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the October 2009 edition of Australasian Science
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