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Australasian ScienceThe AVN circles the drain

March 2014 was a very good month for supporters of vaccination as the Australian Vaccination Network, Australia's most visible and virulent critic of vaccines, ran out of any sympathy the organisation had from public health and regulatory authorities.

The AVN was founded in the 1990s by Meryl Dorey, who was President and public face for most of that time. Until 2009, they had almost unrestricted access to the media and Ms Dorey was often there to provide "balance" when any media outlet ran a story about vaccines. She has always claimed that the AVN was not opposed to vaccination but was simply a source of information that was hidden or suppressed.

In December 2008, Ms Dorey made her position quite clear:

There will come a time – I pray to God that it will happen in my lifetime – when those who have pushed vaccines upon innocent, helpless babies – doctors, pharmaceutical companies, government officials – will be proven to have lied and cheated these instruments of death into our children's bloodstream. When that occurs, the outcry will be heard around the world and there will not be enough hiding places on the globe for these murderers to hide or enough money to pay for compensation. Of course, it will be too late for the babies to be saved. But we will be able to take satisfaction from the fact that never again will anyone have to be pushed to poison their child because for once and for all, it will be known as poison and we will all wonder how it was we fell for the vaccine lie for as long as we did.

What changed in 2009 was the death of a five-week-old baby from whooping cough. The baby was too young to be vaccinated so she had to rely on herd immunity and responsible action by people in her environment. Her parents appealed to others to ensure that they and their children were vaccinated to protect those who could not be. There followed a campaign of vilification and harassment against the parents, including a demand for the baby's medical records to prove that she didn't die from pertussis. The media became interested, and a friend of mine was so enraged after attending the recording of a television show where the parents were attacked that he created a forum on Facebook called "Stop the AVN". Members of this group have since played a major part in bringing down the AVN.

From then onwards the media turned on the AVN, and the number of outlets providing Ms Dorey with a platform shrank to a handful with tiny audiences or where truth didn't matter, only ratings gained by conflict.

In 2010 the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission ordered the AVN to display a notice on their web site. When they failed to comply, the HCCC issued a public warning, and the relevant authority suspended their charity licence and ability to collect donations. They appealed the decision and won on a technicality. (The relevant law was written in 1993, when the World Wide Web was in its infancy. The judge expressed her frustration but was obliged to rule according to the law. The legislation has since been amended.)

In 2012 Ms Dorey attempted, unsuccessfully, to silence three of her critics by applying for Apprehended Violence Orders. The magistrate in my case Charles Willson Peale : Benjamin Rush (Click for larger view)was quite scathing about this abuse of a system designed to protect the victims of real violence. Also in 2012, the NSW Office of Fair Trading ordered the AVN to change its name. This was appealed but the order was upheld at the end of 2013.

Things went quiet for a while (there was a major shuffle of the ministry in NSW and those who had been leaning on the AVN moved to other jobs), but in the first weeks of March, 2014, everything happened at once.

A new name was announced: "Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network" (complete with a claim that the name change didn't matter), the AVN's charity licence was revoked by the relevant Minister (reported to the faithful as a voluntary action), the HCCC ordered them to remove all incorrect information from their web site, and their Facebook page was declared "independent" and handed to a new administrator, an anonymous American using the pseudonym "Benjamin Rush". The original Benjamin Rush was a signatory to the US Declaration of Independence (maybe why the pseudonym was chosen?), but he was also three things that anti-vaccinators love to hate – he was a doctor (who prescribed mercury!), a founder of psychiatry, and he spoke in favour of smallpox vaccination.

A contemporary of Rush, Thomas Jefferson, is often credited with the saying "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance". The AVN may be wounded, but its critics are still vigilant. As another famous American said: "It ain't over until it's over".

This article was published as the Naked Skeptic column in the May 2014 edition of Australasian Science
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