This year’s bill of speakers at the Woodford Folk Festival features anti-vaccine lobbyist Meryl Dorey, spokesperson for the Northern New South Wales-based Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), and purveyor of vaccine misinformation.
The festival is one of Australia’s largest and most popular festivals with approximately 130,000 people attending every year. Held over six days and six nights, the programme includes bands, street performers and speakers covering a range of styles and topics.
The AVN is a self-declared vaccine safety watchdog and list among its goals, to “empower people everywhere to make informed health choices for their families and themselves”. Yet, if you know any of the history of AVN, you might be sceptical about this claim.
In 2009, a public warning was issued about AVN’s website, following a 12-month investigation by the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission. Despite assertions from the AVN that it is “pro-choice”, the commission concluded that its website “provides information that is solely anti-vaccination, … is incorrect and misleading.”
The Commission also found evidence that the AVN cherry-picks reliable and peer-reviewed research, quoting selectively and often contradicting the conclusions or findings of the studies themselves.
In response to this accusation, Meryl Dorey asserted that her assessment of scientific data was better than that of the authors – “We actually read the studies and frequently, the summary and conclusion does not agree with the raw data itself.”
She went on to suggest that this was due to some kind of conspiracy – “that disconnect can be explained by the financial links between the study’s researchers and the companies whose products are being studied” and therefore her interpretation was “not selective reporting - it is accurate reporting."
This is curious considering Dorey has no scientific or medical qualifications, and in response to a query on the topic, declared, “I am not a doctor, but I have a brain.”
Although she claims to have studied vaccination for over 20 years, Dorey gets some things fundamentally wrong. Australia has been in the grip of a whooping cough epidemic for several years now, and since 2008, seven babies have lost their lives. But discussing whooping cough on national television in 2009, Dorey said, “You didn’t die from it 30 years ago and you’re not going to die from it now.”
The AVN also repeatedly misrepresent statistics for whooping cough to make it appear that the current epidemic is solely a result of vaccine failure. This was the subject of a complaint upheld by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in 2009.
What’s more, the AVN has been accused of harassing the parents of a baby who died from whooping cough and going so far as calling a director of public health at the North Coast Area Health Service demanding to know the details of the child’s death. Dr Corben described how “Ms Dorey called me on 12 March seeking details of your daughter’s illness and death. Ms Dorey contended that I had misled the public in attributing your daughter’s death to pertussis (whooping cough).”
Flogging a dead horse
According to the Woodford Festival program details Dorey will be sitting in a panel and giving a lecture about autism, where she will “explain more about the causes of this epidemic so you can help prevent your children from being affected".
It seems likely Dorey will assert a role for vaccines in autism, despite the fact that this link has been well and truly debunked both in the lab and the courts and the paper that sparked the debate has been struck from the scientific record.
The lead author of that paper, Andrew Wakefield, claimed there was a link between the MMR vaccine and a gastrointestinal disorder in autistic children, warning parents against using the triple jab. But what he neglected to mention was that he was being paid more than $A676,658 by lawyers building a case for vaccine damage, and he had a patent for a single measles vaccine, all of which stood to make him an nice swag of cash.
In 2010, Wakefield was struck from the medical register for unethical and dishonest behaviour and “for showing callous disregard for children’s suffering” and in 2011 he was accused of elaborate fraud by the British Medical Journal. Despite these serious ethical breaches, Dorey continues to support him.
But you won’t find any of this information on the website of the Woodford Folk Festival even though several people have already written to the organisers to express their concern about the omission. Indeed, it appears that the AVN’s message contradicts that of several festival sponsors including the Queensland Government and the Moreton Bay Council. The latter actually provides several free immunisation clinics.
The trouble with the AVN is that it’s not completely transparent about its agenda. The AVN insists it is pro-choice, but offers information which is anything but balanced. In some cases, it’s misleading, and in others, outright incorrect.
At a time when vaccine preventable diseases are on the rise, it’s irresponsible and dangerous of the Woodford Folk Festival to be supporting such misinformation. The AVN poses a threat to public health and the public has a right to be know about its agenda, so – like the AVN says – they can make informed health choices.