Jan 3, 2012

Vaccination Talk at Woodford

“What’s everyone looking at?” asked the woman.

“The plane,” I replied. “It’s towing a banner that says Vaccinations Save Lives.”

The woman shook her head and tsked. “Drug companies have all the money, don’t they?”

Welcome to the world of the anti-vaxxer.

I’d made my first trip up to Woodford primarily as a punter, but you can’t take the journalist out of the girl. I’d been at the media conference in early December when Queensland Health Minister described Australian Vaccination Network spokesperson Meryl Dorey as talking “nonsense”, so it was perhaps more than coincidence that I’d made my way to the Folk Festival on the day she was due to speak.

I’m pro-immunisation. I don’t have children, but I have a cervix, and consider the HPV vaccine one of the medical marvels of my lifetime. Like millions of others, I’ve also successfully avoided polio, smallpox, whooping cough, diptheria and tetanus thanks to childhood shots.

But I was interested in how, despite the weight of scientific evidence, people like Meryl Dorey and her supporters could argue against vaccinations.

The controversy over Ms Dorey’s appearance had prompted festival organisers to arrange Queensland Institute of Medical Research immunologist Professor Andreas Suhrbier to present the pro-vaccination argument.

The Blue Lotus venue was packed with over 200 people when the Professor kicked off. His arguments were a simple expansion on the thesis being waved behind the light plane flying over the festival site: Vaccinations Save Lives. He also showed the debunking of the infamous Wakefield report linking the MMR vaccine to autism, and blamed greedy lawyers with fuelling the anti-vaccine conspiracy.

His presentation was met with a great cheer at its conclusion; but Ms Dorey was welcomed with enthusiastic applause as she began her rebuttal. She started by thanking the Australian sceptics who’d paid for the plane to fly over, saying the AVN “couldn’t buy this much publicity”.

Ms Dorey proved a competent speaker, in which I believe lay the key to her support. Her gentle yet insistent American accent had an air of authority, and she was obviously passionate about the topic. She wasn’t aggressive, instead, maintained she was just seeking the truth, and had only ever wanted to engage with the scientific community rather than be ignored by it. She also tied her claims to credible points, such as the role of improved hygiene and living standards in reducing disease:

“The engineers of the world had more to do with the increase in health over the last 150 years than the medical community has, and I think a lot of doctors admit that.”

Ms Dorey pointed at the problem with “superbugs”, and claimed it’s also happening with vaccines, making them less effective:

“Maybe it means the bacteria are smarter than we are, because they’ve somehow adapted to the vaccinations.”

The biggest protest came when she made the claim vaccines do cause autism. A fellow standing at the back of the room yelled “Rubbish!” and received a clap. But around 15 people gave Ms Dorey standing ovation when she finished, indicating that she certainly had fans.

A question and answer session followed, in which the balance for and against was roughly 50/50. One of the best statements came from a young Northern Territory doctor named Michael, who advocated the use of online resources, such as the Cochrane database of research reviews:

“Unless you believe there’s a conspiracy of doctors and medical researchers out there trying to kill your children, then the answers to these questions are available to every one of us, simply by logging on and accessing this database.” 

For me, the most eloquent statement came from Professor Schubier, when asked to reflect on the small but often very vocal opposition to vaccines:

“You’re talking about people with damaged children. It’s a very emotional issue. I cannot imagine what you go through having a damaged child, it’s too horrible. It’s very hard in those sort of scenarios to be matching up scientific data with very upset people. It’s very hard, how do you get balance?

I think as a scientific community and a government, we don’t do a great job of explaining things. It’s a very complicated area. You go to university for bloody years just to get an inkling of what’s going on, and it’s very hard for many people to understand a lot this stuff, including me. 

There’s a huge literature – I looked it up, there are 55,000 papers on autism. I mean, how can I possibly understand the whole story? It’s very hard, very complicated. So when you ask for balance, you’re talking about [trying to] capture vast amounts of data. And it’s very difficult as well, because you can select bits of data and show one thing, you can select another bit of data and show something else. The real issue is overall, what does it all mean?

I really like Einstein’s theory of humanity: ‘There are two things that are infinite, human stupidity and the universe, and I’m not so sure about the universe.’ We’re not that bright, really.”

I realised why there are some parents out there willing to blame revolutionary and demonstrably effective public health measures for their own personal tragedies.

All the statistics in the world mean nothing if your child suffers. 

Science is often concerned with broad-ranging issues affecting thousands, millions, billions. But for many, problems of that scale are inconceivable. 

I believe Meryl Dorey’s own experience as the parent of an autistic child spurred her into taking action. I personally don’t agree with her path, but can understand that she sees herself fighting for her own truth.

Whether you agree letting Meryl Dorey speak in public forums is exposing her views to ridicule they deserve, or giving her case oxygen it shouldn’t receive, one fact remains.

Education remains key to fighting ignorance. 

Afterwards, I did a brief interview with Phil Kent, a member of the Stop AVN Facebook group who was at the event. Apologies for the quality; I recorded it by holding my Zoom Q3 recorder angled towards us, so I couldn't frame the shot!


  1. I think a cause for these beliefs is that parents with autistic children want some one/thing to blame otherwise it's their fault. This is their out and people are taking advantage of that.

  2. I believe the Autism link has been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked, but Meryl Dorey will not hear it.

    As for "All the statistics in the world mean nothing if your child suffers". I'm a parent and I vaccinate my two children because I believe I have a social responsibility to look after all of our community, not just myself and my children.

  3. Hey CCL - my apologies if that seems unclear - the above paragraph states that it's "Some" parents who look to blame vaccines.

    I honestly believe most parents agree with vaccination and have it done without a second thought. I've also received tweets from a few people who say that they've got autistic kids but are still confirmed pro-vaccination.

    I think it's just the reaction of a few, and I was interested in why that was.

    I hope that makes sense!

  4. Well written, Natalie. Vaccination talk makes me angry and there's no way I could have written that without becoming a little shouty.

  5. Good post on that topic and I'm retweeting it and sticking it on my Facebook page. Thanks so much for reporting on this.

  6. Hi, this is the first account of Woodford I've seen, nice one! Great to hear there were people there questioning Meryl. The AVers exhort people to question question question, it's good to see someone doing it to her face. As Andy said above, it makes me shouty. You've done well to write about it with the respect you did - I can't accord Meryl the same given her treatment of friends and myself for asking questions of her and her buddies.

  7. I think I should note - Australian Skeptics didn't fund, or indeed, have anything to do with the flying banner. That was the work of a different group, Stop the AVN, whose members paid for it out of their own pockets.

    In fact, Australian Skeptics didn't know anything about it until the plane flew overhead.

  8. Many of us are old enough to remember the days when we had clean water; an efficient sewage-disposal system; people with built-up shoes and calipers supporting polio-shrunken limbs; fear of smallpox; and sufferering, and seeing our siblings suffer, from now-vaccine-preventable diseases. Two generations have grown-up protected by vaccinations. Migrants arrived in Australia in the early 1950s having lost a child on the voyage to measles. Now, a child dying of whooping cough is a news story. In the 1940s, scores of children dying from the disease were hardly newsworthy. Last year in Australia a young, unvaccinated, woman died of diphtheria. That was news. Hundreds dying of that disease in the years before vaccination was no news; except, perhaps, in a small item about the annual report of a local hospital. People must be educated in what happened before vaccination. Water and sewerage systems were a massive boon to public health, particularly with typhoid and colera, but it was mass-vaccination that saw the eradication of smallpox, polio, diphtheria and tuberculosis from Australia, and a huge reduction in other diseases.

  9. Hi Churba - thanks for your note.

    I did realise that the Stop the AVN group was behind the plane, and I wanted to include the video with Phil Kent from the group to show that.

    However, Meryl Dorey thanked the "Australian skeptics" in her speech. Whether she meant the official group, or used the term more loosely, I'm not sure!

  10. Hey Girl, Meryl continues to perpetuate the furphy that Stop the AVN and the Australian Skeptics are one and the same. Completely untrue.

  11. People are more inclined to base beliefs on emotions rather than logic. Until someone figures out a way of jolting the ignorant emotionally, you won't make progress appealing to their sense of logic.

    Good piece Nat - every angle is worth trying!

  12. Hello, autistic person here.

    I am not damaged. My life is not a tragedy. I am not a normal person who befell some terrible mishap, or trapped in a bubble, or any other nonsense. It's really upsetting that some parent groups are still wheeling that line out.

    It devalues everything that I and other people like me have achieved when we're written off as 'damaged', when it's implied that we are just taking up space that would be better filled with the more desirable non-autistic version of ourselves. The child our parents wanted, instead of the one they had.

    I'm not having a go at you GC, I'm having a go at the anti-vaxers. There is still so much to learn about autism, and so little support available for adults with autism. So, there are plenty of productive avenues people can channel their energy into if they want to make a difference, rather than chasing strawmen and looking for a bogey man to blame.

  13. Thanks again everyone for your comments.

    I just wanted to touch on Artsie As Pie's comment.

    It was actually Professor Schubier the immunologist who used the phrase "damaged children". I can see how that would be offensive; I'm sure he probably didn't mean to be taken that way. He mentions how the scientific community does have problems communicating; perhaps this is one!

    I guess what he was meaning was children "outside the norm" (whatever the norm is!).

    In terms of my own use of the phrase "personal tragedies" - perhaps that was insensitive. I'm not suggesting parents resent or reject children "outside the norm".

    However, most parents-to-be I encounter say the only thing they want is for their child to be healthy, and to grow up without a huge amount of medical interference.

    Having a condition like autism (like any number of things), does affect that definition of "healthy".

    So the "tragedy" that I refer to is that change from expectation to reality.

    I believe most parents cope well. They do the research and look into the best options for their child. They are positive.

    However I think some parents don't cope with a child "outside the norm". Some might express this through bad/lazy parenting, or abandonment. But also some may look for something to blame. That's the space I believe some anti-vaxxers fall into.

    But Artie As Pie is absolutely right in saying that these conditions "outside the norm" need support and research dollars, not blame.

    I am not a parent

  14. GirlClumsy, thank you for writing such a balanced and considered piece on this event. It is great to see someone who understands why it is some parents question both the safety and efficacy of vaccination and is prepared to show respect even if you don't agree with us. I wish everyone could show the same restraint as you have. Thank you.
    Meryl Dorey

  15. I would have to agree with Meryl Dorey's comment, by citing the main point of Girl Clumsy's post:

    "Education remains key to fighting ignorance."

    I note that Meryl Dorey cites the word "respect". I would love Meryl Dorey to practice this respect thing. I would love Meryl Dorey to show the same restraint shown by Girl Clumsy.

    I have many posts on the respect shown by Meryl Dorey to her detractors, and to a grieving family. This is just the latest:


  16. I just want to add, the main users of the term "damaged" are anti-vaccine activists, like Meryl Dorey.

  17. So when Meryl Dorey described vaccination as "rape... with full penetration" after a court agreed with a man that his daughter should be vaccinated, was that showing respect for either the court or the father?

    I'm just trying to get some guidelines on how this "respect" thing works.

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  19. Phil Plait, astronomer and science communicator, has this to say about any science based argument.

    Don't be a dick.

    Click the link and read what he has to say about being civil when dealing with emotional issues.

    I think it is lesson useful for both sides of this issue.

    (p.s I am loathe to call it an issue or debate as the science is strongly on the side of vaccination. However, some people have concerns and they need their view corrected through calm, rational, scientifically proven conversations and not personal attacks and mud slinging)

  20. Phil Plait is awesome. Here is his recent post regarding Meryl Dorey. Meryl Dorey spread misinformation about the little baby in Phil's post. Mrs Dorey has never retracted, apologised, nor acknowledged her misinformation surrounding Dana's death:

    Here is Phil replying to Mrs Dorey on December 19 2010, after Mrs Dorey attempted to make milage out of Phil's DBAD speech:

    reasonablehank (couldn't comment under WP, for some reason)

  21. Sadly so often when a tragedy strikes people need to find something to blame, the thought of just a pure random event is just to difficult for them.

    They blame god or the devil they blame doctors or science they blame the stars for being in the wrong place if they need to.

    it is a human need to have reasons, for many of us just saying it was pure random bad luck is not sufficient.

    Sadly by her use of blame this women is putting so many other innocent children at risk and that is just not fair.


  22. Imgur link again. Sorry.

  23. This comment has been removed by the author.

  24. Nice piece Nat. I took a slightly more strident approach from a more media-based angle here: http://andrew-stafford.blogspot.com/2011/09/all-about-folksonomics-intellectual.html

  25. For the sake of accuracy, Aust Skeptics did not pay for the plane but we did know about it, given many of us (including myself) are also members of SAVN.

  26. Pro-immunisation myself, I also really appreciate the measured approach to discussion. "More strident" approaches really are not helpful. I believe there are a number of key themes to issues like this one:

    * Epistemological issues - where people are not able to effectively evaluate the relative merits of certain knowledge claims by the bases on which they are made. I think this is actually more rather than less prevalent with people who call themselves "sceptics" than it is with new-ager types, but that is not the case here. I think there are some key misunderstandings about probability and statistics in the community at large, and that addressing those is important - for this and many other reasons.

    * Emotive colouring - where discussion is hijacked by the emotive power of the perceived outcomes of a particular choice, rather than the genuine questions around efficacy of such a choice one way or other. I think in "strident" versions of the discussion on vaccinations, both sides are guilty of this one. "Vaccinations save lives" is nothing is not a specifically emotive slogan (albeit true IMHO).

    * Polarisation and "otherness" - where in this case there's a perception of a scientific "establishment" owned by commercial interests on the one hand, and a perception of knowledge-rejection reprobate hippies on the other hand. People who should know better often forget that the truth is never feasibly represented in such absolutes. In many other contexts, rude stereotypes of "hippies" and "scientists" are not just overlapping groups, but identical ones.

    As an aside - I used to work at QIMR too, I know Andreas and he's a lovely fellow. Very serious about his work, very focused on public health outcomes.

    By way of summary - we're a rich tapestry. If everyone believed the same things, we'd all be poorer for it. However I do believe we ought to ensure that the proportion of the population required to be immunised to prevent re-emergence of the preventable diseases discussed here is maintained.

    Education is the biggest thing. I think "back to basics" style programmes represent a profound "dumbing down" of curricula, leading to people who can spell well enough against an arbitrary measure, but whose reading comprehension is shockingly bad. I completely blame the existence of an anti-vaccination movement on conservative influences on public education. I do not believe we'd have such a thing without them.

  27. What a great article, well done.

  28. I am fiercely pro-vaccination, and am currently a guineapig for an experimental Ross River fever vaccine. This the only reason I am required to use "anonymous". Confidentiality and all that for the clinical trial.

    Ms Dorey has come a long way from having her first son who "...experienced reactions to the vaccines..." to being the mother of an autistic child. Funny, Autism wasn't mentioned back when this article was written http://archive.constantcontact.com/fs082/1101800214009/archive/1102167038371.html

    In my humble opinion (and I am happy to be proven wrong, and will apologise and retract unreservedly if proven wrong) Ms Dorey is at the very least, dishonest in her dealings with the public. The truth is, I fear, far worse. Why else would the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission declare the AVN "A danger to public health" and the NSW Office of Liquor Gaming and Racing withdraw her registration as a charity? The AVN, and Ms Dorey in particular, are truely not in favour of discussion, truely not in favour of "Choice". They are staunch anti-vaccination folks, and I consider them a real and present danger to the health of children and the wider community.

  29. This is a very interesting topic that's always been kept hush-hush. I liked hearing about both sides of the argument. Each side backed up their stance with a voice of passion and reasoning. VERY nice post to read about! Thanx!! :-)