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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 In dispute was their license to fundraise which had been revoked and a public warning, issued because they refused to put a Quack Miranda on their website.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 It is true that health legislation in NSW is very much out of date in the Internet age.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

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