“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.
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!