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Another blow to the anti-vaccine movement as legislation change forces a name change

Earlier this year, Australia’s anti-vaccine lobby, the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), took the NSW Government to the Supreme Court. In dispute was their license to fundraise which had been revoked and a public warning, issued because they refused to put a Quack Miranda on their website.

The public warning was posted after the NSW government investigated their website following two complaints, one from a concerned citizen and one from the parents of a 4 week old girl who had died of pertussis.

The complaints accused the AVN of peddling dangerous health misinformation including that vaccines were linked to autism and that pertussis was “nothing more than a bad cough”.

The AVN had always insisted that the HCCC did not have jurisdiction over them because they were not health care providers or educators in the “traditional sense”. It is true that health legislation in NSW is very much out of date in the Internet age. The rules say you can complain only if you can demonstrate direct harm as a result of taking someone’s dodgy advice. For example you had a stroke because of a chiropractor’s adjustments or a punctured lung from acupuncture. Just having a website full of woo-woo wasn’t really covered.

So the AVN challenged the HCCC on these grounds and, to the surprise of many of us, they won. Those who were present in the court that day recall the Judge urging the HCCC Barrister to present evidence for direct harm. And the worst thing was the HCCC apparently had this information, but for reasons unknown to us, did not present it. Those who were there said the HCCC Barrister dropped the ball big time that day. And they were right.

Within hours the public warning was expunged and shortly after that the authority to fundraise was returned. As if nothing ever happened.

But something did happen that day. Two things in fact, one that would impact on the AVN months later.

Firstly, an unintended consequence of suing the government was that they became classified as health care providers. Judge Adamson accepted that “the complaints concerned a health service provided by a health service provider” thus exposing them to future prosecution.

Secondly, the Judge made an observation about the AVN’s name. During the case she was not convinced by Dorey’s claims “to educate her subscribers and the general public into making decisions about vaccinations”. As Justice Adamson put it, “It seems slightly coy that your client is so shy about admitting what it is on about”.

By July of 2012, Dorey had an inkling that something was afoot after she was tipped off by a journalist that there was a campaign brewing for her to change the name of her organisation. She issued a press release saying “The Australian Vaccination Network has no intention of changing its name and any group or government department that believes it has the right to try and force us to do so will find themselves strenuously opposed.”  Dorey continued, It is not up to a third party to say what we can and cannot call ourselves. The last time I checked, Australia was still a democracy. Will they be coming for our books next?”. (More on that later, and the answer is yes).

But on Friday December 14th, her worst fears were realised when the NSW Department of Fair Trading came knocking to deliver an order that she change her name or face deregistration. In a news article describing the move, the Fair Trading Minister emphasised: “this is not a request, this is an order”.

The order makes reference to numerous complaints from health care professionals, the public and notably the Australian Medical Association that the name “Australian Vaccine Network” was misleading and was confusing people searching for information on vaccination.

For a week Dorey went very quiet, neglecting her Twitter feed and Facebook page. Many of us suspected she was seeking legal advice on how to challenge the government’s order. It turns out this is a very serious matter since if she can’t settle on a mutually agreed name by February 21st, 2013, her business can be wound-up, an audit conducted and any debts become the responsibility of the committee members, including her. Estimates calculated from financial statements obtained via freedom of information indicate she owes at least $400,000 in undelivered magazine subscriptions, and there are likely other accounting discrepancies.

But any hope of avoiding the order via legal channels were well and truly quashed on Friday December 21st, when the NSW Government changed the law to prevent “a name that is likely to mislead the public in relation to the nature, objects or association…”

That’s right. They changed the law. It was an early Christmas present for those of us who have been campaigning to see the end of the AVN’s dissemination of misinformation and callous disregard for the health of children. And it was a huge blow for the anti-vaccine movement in Australia.

What’s in a name?

Whilst the name the AVN gives the impression they are a neutral resource for vaccination information, scratching the surface of their website and other literature quickly reveals an anti-vaccine agenda (incidentally, I don’t recommend going to their site at the moment as it has been hacked and you will likely be redirected to a cheap pills seller, or get yourself a nasty virus).

Publicly they use phrases like “pro-choice and “vaccine safety watchdog” but in truth they are anything but. The investigation by the HCCC (which was not overturned, just the public warning was) found that the AVN website “provides information that is solely anti-vaccination, contains information that is incorrect and misleading, and quotes selectively from research to suggest that vaccination may be dangerous.”

Giving the lie to their claimed “pro-choice” stance, the AVN sells T-Shirts emblazoned with “Love Them, Protect Them, Never Inject Them”, and a children’s book designed to teach kids to embrace infectious disease called “Melanie’s Marvellous Measles”.

And who could forget Meryl Dorey comparing vaccination to “rape with full penetration”? She has also been accused of harassing the parents of a child who died from pertussis by telephoning the health department to enquire about the true cause of death. It seems she didn’t believe it was pertussis that killed the child, frequently stating she “supposedly” died of pertussis, thus deepening the parents’ grief even further. In another ghoulish act, she has suggested commenters on her Facebook page contact a different set of grieving parents to enquire of the child’s vaccination status at death, thus inferring a vaccine was implicated.  Callous in the extreme.

In recent years Australian journalists, urged on by grass roots campaigners like “Stop the AVN” (SAVN), have been increasingly challenging Dorey on her public face of “pro-choice” by routinely referring to the AVN as “The Anti-Vaccination Network” and asking her which vaccines she would recommend. Her response is usually along the lines of “… it is not the place of the AVN to tell people which vaccines are good…” but such evasion will only fool so many people for so long.

In addition, the media has recently copped a bollocking for lending credibility to her dangerous nonsense by using her as a source. It is strongly rumoured that some media outlets now have a complete ban on speaking to her under any circumstances.

The issue of the misleading name has led to confusion for the public and professionals alike, with The Australian College of Midwives’ being recent victims. They mistakenly sent out invitations (later withdrawn) to an AVN seminar to all their members because they were unaware that the AVN was an “anti-immunisation lobby”.

Parents commenting on the SAVN page share similar stories;

“Dear Meryl, I was attracted to the AVN several years ago because the name suggested that you might be a reputable source of information about vaccination (I was preparing for an overseas trip). I found nothing of the sort on your site…..I was indeed misled and deceived by your name. And I’m not the only one.”

In 2009, the Australian Skeptics, with sponsorship from philanthropist and aviator Dick Smith, took out an ad in the Australian newspaper to warn parents not to look to the AVN for health information. During the flurry of publicity that ensued, Dick Smith said;

“They are actually anti-vaccination, and they should put on every bit of their material that they are anti-vaccination in great big words. They have every right for that belief but they should communicate it clearly so people are not misled.”

Yet, the practice of anti-vaccine groups using misleading names is not new. In the US there is the National Vaccine Information Centre, or NVIC, who refer to themselves a vaccine watch dog, and in New Zealand there is VINE, or Vaccination Information Network. Though the latter are at least honest about their agenda. Erwin Alber who runs the organisation doesn’t try to disguise his nutbaggery.

But it’s pretty obvious why the AVN are so keen to disguise their true agenda.  I can’t imagine parents looking to the “Anti-Vaccine Network” for unbiased advice. But when parents hit Google and type in vaccination, one of the first hits they get is the AVN. And with more than half of us turning to Dr Google to research health, this constitutes a lot of people who are potentially being misled.

What does it all mean?

An order to change your name might not seem like such a big deal until you look into the specifics. The AVN are allowed to use “Inc” after their name but this also means they have to abide by certain rules.

The AVN have 2 months to comply and a right to appeal, but if they decide not to comply or the groups can’t agree on a name, they risk being closed down. According to the legislation, the Commissioner has the right to seize their assets, conduct a full audit and distribute funds however he sees fit (but specifically not to the committee members, meaning Dorey will see none of it).

Even to those of us who are not forensic accountants, her accounts appear a mess. She has yet to submit her financial statements for 2011, which were due nearly 12 months ago and there are other examples of apparently missing funds. She continues to sell subscriptions to a magazine that she consistently fails to deliver, and when people enquire of its whereabouts on Facebook, she deletes their comments.

The AVN will also lose their domain name if they cannot come up with a name that has “AVN” as its acronym.

Before the legislation was changed on Friday, effectively closing all loopholes for the AVN, Ms Dorey responded to the order in the only way she knows, with accusations of “suppression of free speech” and “government bully boys”. And in a bizarre analogy she questioned why she was being targeted when “Greenpeace is not green, nor do they go around looking for peace…”

Of course this is not an issue of free speech, as the NSW Fair Trading Minster Anthony Roberts explained, “People do not have the freedom of choice when it comes to endangering others….it’s the equivalent of saying a bloke can speed down the road and endanger others… this is not a victimless issue, it’s about the ability to stop pain and suffering.”

The AVN are free to say and write what they like, but as long as they choose to live under the roof of the Department of Fair Trading they must choose a name that accurately describes the activities of the organisation.

As the Minister put in no uncertain terms on Australian radio:

“What we are asking this organisation to do is be upfront and honest with people and stop misleading people … for far too long this organisation has been misleading individuals and getting away with it

“These people aren’t about pro-choice, these people are about pushing an anti-vaccine line.”

So here’s my suggestion for a new name for the AVN: change it to The Anti-Vaccination Network. That way there can be absolutely no confusion about your agenda and you get to keep your domain name.  There’s no point hiding behind a veil of “pro-choice” anymore, that veil has been lifted and you’re not fooling anyone anymore.

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

Leave a Comment (16) ↓

16 thoughts on “Another blow to the anti-vaccine movement as legislation change forces a name change

  1. In related news, Wakefield also received the lifetime quackery award from the UK’s Good Thinking Society (link to the Guardian writeup).

  2. Amalthea says:

    I believe in minimal government intervention but there are times when it’s necessary. This is one of those occasions.
    It’s quite sad, really. All of these people trying to stop vaccinations and my parents would have been very happy if the measles vaccines had come into existence several years earlier than they did. I’d have been less ill as a two year old if I could’ve been vaccinated against rubella and rubeola.

  3. BillyJoe says:

    I’m wondering if I should email the local chiropractor to inform her what AVN actually stands for.
    She has it linked on her website:

    http://www.mooroolbarkchiro.com.au/index.php/links

    (Yes, tongue in cheek)

  4. fxh says:

    billyjoe – that local Mooroolbark ( try saying that with a mouth full of whiskey) chior – not only links to AVN but has this to say on their web page:

    [i] Improper motion or position of the moving bones of the spine (called a SUBLUXATION) can interfere with this vital exchange by irritating nerves and compromising the function of affected organs and tissues. Specific spinal adjustments can help improve mind/body communications. Health often returns with improved nervous system control of the body.
    How do I know if I have a subluxation?

    You can have subluxations present and not even know it. Like the early stages of tooth decay or cancer, SUBLUXATIONS can be present before any warning signs appear. The results of a thorough examination can show the location and severity of SUBLUXATIONS your body may have.

    It is more likely that an adjacent spinal bone irritates, stretches, rubs or chafes a nerve. These SUBLUXATIONS distort the nerve message sent between the brain and the body. This can produce unhealthy alterations to the organs and tissues connected by the affected nerves.
    How do you get subluxations?

    There are three basic causes of SUBLUXATIONS.
    Physical causes could include slips, falls, vehicle accidents, repetitive actions and improper lifting. Emotions such as grief, anger and fear can cause subluxations. Chemical causes could include alcohol, drugs, pollution and poor diet.[/i]

  5. elburto says:

    Beautiful. I loathe Dorey, so this is a nice Christmas present.

  6. Grant Jacobs says:

    In New Zealand most of us are more concerned about the IAS, ‘Immunisation Awareness Society’ than VINE. Or at least I am. My feeling is that VINE is more obviously strange and people are more likely to back away from it on their own initiative.

    IAS (ias.org.nz) by contrast has parents with no formal training writing articles as if they were ‘researching’ the topics and their ‘findings’ were meaningful – i.e. deceptive to those not able to just them.

    The IAS authors also insist on avoiding saying what they are, that the are anti-vaccine by insisting they are ‘pro-choice’ when what they clearly mean by that is to have the choice to present an anti-vaccine page, a different thing to being pro-choice in the sense of offering ‘an informed choice’ (their motto/byline). (i.e. the general same issue as with AVN described in Rachael’s article above.)

    IAS have earlier this year lost their charitable status, courtesy of work by fellow blogger Darcy Cowan. They have now taken to paying Facebook to advertise their Facebook posts that link to their articles. (A society advertising false “health” information/advice is a dubious state of affairs if you ask me – it may be worth checking the legal status of that.)

    Erwin Alber (who hosts VINE) also has a ‘My child’s vaccine reaction’ Facebook page. I used to occasionally try reply to questions on these pages* (IAS, VINE, VFFNZ [Vaccine-free families New Zealand], ‘My child’s vaccine reaction’) but they uniformly seem unable to accept polite on-topic replies to their members questions — most of the time they accept a person for a short period then at some point one of the admins seems to have a “moment” and delete them. (A few ‘opposing’ comments are left standing.)

    —-
    * I developed a policy on insisting on being polite and only answered questions as to be on-topic. The all block people from writing even if they do this. In Erwin’s case the mere mention of IMAC — the University of Auckland Immunisation Advisory Centre — was justification for blocking my replies. For others it may be because I have written a few times at sciblogs.co.nz pointing out issues with IAS.

  7. Rachael Dunlop says:

    @grant, interesting that you mention the FB ads. Dorey was seen complaining on a WOT forum that she can no longer place FB ads because her website has very poor rating on WOT. As FB has recently partnered with WOT, any sites that are ranked poorly are blocked by FB.

    I see IAS already has a red WOT ranking – which is curious because Dorey says she is no longer allowed to advertise on FB for this reason. Do IAS ads go to their FB page then get diverted to their site? I guess this might be a way of getting around the FB ban on red WOT sites, but I would have thought they were onto this.

    Can you confirm?

    As an aside, regarding the AVN WOT ranking, it was already in the red when SAVN were made aware of the site – by Dorey herself – but despite this she blames us for her bad ranking. Simply not true (although SAVN peeps have visited since and added their votes).

  8. rosross says:

    All groups and organisations should be held accountable including those which wave the ‘science’ flag. The effectiveness of a particular organisation, including this one, is not crucial to a worldwide movement where parents are pushing for greater accountability from science/medicine in regard to the use of vaccinations and the right for parents to make their own choices for their children.
    There is solid evidence that the method of making vaccinations and the method of administering vaccinations are unhealthy to lesser and greater degrees for a significant number of children. We may also find that there are ongoing health problems with children who appear to have little or no reaction to vaccinations.
    In a free and democratic world, like it or not, parents choose what their children eat, what lifestyle they leadf, when or if they go to a doctor and if and when they have vaccinations. That is as it should be.

  9. weing says:

    “There is solid evidence that the method of making vaccinations and the method of administering vaccinations are unhealthy to lesser and greater degrees for a significant number of children.”
    We are supposed to believe you, because you say so? Sorry, that’s not how science works. Show us the evidence, please.

  10. WilliamLawrenceUtridge says:

    All groups and organisations should be held accountable including those which wave the ‘science’ flag. The effectiveness of a particular organisation, including this one, is not crucial to a worldwide movement where parents are pushing for greater accountability from science/medicine in regard to the use of vaccinations and the right for parents to make their own choices for their children.

    I would agree with your first sentence. Particularly if it meant organizations like this could be held accountable for morbidity and mortality that was directly related to the inaccurate information they release. What do you think about organizations that “wave the science flag” while ignoring large swathes of actual science? Specifically I mean those organizations that pretend vaccinations do more harm than good. And what about parents whose choices place other children at risk? Ignorant choices, those informed by pseudoscience (again, those opposing vaccination on the basis of selective interpretation or outright ignorance of science) should not be a right.

    There is solid evidence that the method of making vaccinations and the method of administering vaccinations are unhealthy to lesser and greater degrees for a significant number of children. We may also find that there are ongoing health problems with children who appear to have little or no reaction to vaccinations.

    No, there isn’t. There’s a massive amount of literature regarding the benefits of vaccination (how much do you worry about smallpox and polio I wonder?) and very little evidence regarding harms. Legitimate evidence of harm is incorporated into the scientific discourse and valid, evidence-based changes to the vaccination schedule are made based on that evidence. For instance, seen any smallpox vaccinations recently? How ’bout whole-cell pertussis vaccines? Billions of doses of vaccines have been given, even very small signals can be detected with those sorts of numbers. In all those numbers, there is no firm evidence of the harms you are alleging. Meanwhile, diseases that are vaccinated against have recognized, serious harms including sterility, disability and death (not to mention the simple suffering of being sick).

    In a free and democratic world, like it or not, parents choose what their children eat, what lifestyle they leadf, when or if they go to a doctor and if and when they have vaccinations. That is as it should be.

    Ah, health freedom! The freedom to spread diseases to other people, unimpaired by any sense of responsibility. The freedom to make choices based on rhetoric and instinct rather than evidence. The freedom to die of preventable disease. I personally wouldn’t mind a little less freedom, just like I don’t think people should be free to drive while drunk. Ignorant, selfish choices that impact other people’s health are not valid arguments to support “freedom”.

  11. Narad says:

    In a free and democratic world, like it or not, parents choose what their children eat, what lifestyle they leadf, when or if they go to a doctor and if and when they have vaccinations. That is as it should be.

    No, what you posit is a world in which children are viewed as chattel rather as humans with innate rights that are inherently guarded more zealously than those of their temporary custodians. You may as well have written “when or if their children eat” or “if and when they have schooling.”

  12. Chris says:

    rosross:

    There is solid evidence that the method of making vaccinations and the method of administering vaccinations are unhealthy to lesser and greater degrees for a significant number of children. We may also find that there are ongoing health problems with children who appear to have little or no reaction to vaccinations.

    Then you must provide that evidence, because this is the “Science Based Medicine” blog not the “I say stuff and you gotta believe me” blog.

    Here is something you should do in your next comment: show us a verifiable way to prevent the 200000 to 300000 deaths from pertussis worldwide, along with the almost 200000 deaths from tetanus. You must provide evidence that you solution actually works.

    To remind you what one of you is like please read: ‘It was hideous’ – family’s tetanus agony.

  13. mattyp says:

    Don’t feed the trolls. :-)

  14. Grant Jacobs says:

    Rachel,

    Excuse the belated reply – holidays intervened, with a fair chunk of them in places without internet access.

    I’m a bit of a Facebook clutz. (I use it fairly naively as I haven’t the time to learn all the features and I dislike how their user-interface doesn’t lead you to the features easily. IMO. :-) ) I’m not quite sure how I’ll test how they are doing this, but I’ll try later tonight.

    All: Obviously “not able to just them” should read “not able to judge them”. (Don’t ask me how my brain does word swaps like that :-( )

  15. Grant Jacobs says:

    Rachael,

    My apologies for dropping the second ‘a’ in your name earlier. Not good of me to not check before writing – sorry.

    Is this useful?: Their sponsored posts are first written as an article on their website (ias.org.nz), then a short post on their Facebook page is posted linking to the article, then the Facebook post is pushed as a ‘sponsored’ post to others’ timelines. (This is “as best as I can tell”, of course.)

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