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vaccines

Dec 14, 2011

Why Meryl Dorey should stay on the Woodford Festival program

Organisers of the Woodford Folk Festival are coming under fire for including anti-vaccine lobbyist Meryl Dore

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Organisers of the Woodford Folk Festival are coming under fire for including anti-vaccine lobbyist Meryl Dorey on the festival program.

Rachael Dunlop, Researcher and Communications Officer at the Heart Research Institute, wrote at The Conversation that it is an “irresponsible and dangerous” mistake.

In the article below, the University of Queensland’s Jon Wardle argues that rather than risking turning Dorey into a martyr by excluding her from the program, it may be wiser to allow her views to be subjected to public scrutiny.

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Don’t exclude Dorey from the festival program

Jon Wardle writes:

There has been a lot of hullaballoo in recent days about Meryl Dorey’s appearance in the health forum at Woodford.

As someone who has been involved with the Woodford health forums previously – and will be involved again this year – I can attest that debates are usually animated and anything but one-sided.

The Woodford Folk Festival has a history of inviting controversial speakers to all its forums, not in support of their views but to foster the spirit of heated debate on which the festival thrives.

Philip Nitschke attracted similar controversy when he spoke at the health forum in 2008. Similarly fiery debates will be occurring in the Environment tent just a few hundred metres away.

The Woodford audience is a remarkably diverse forum representing the microcosm of Australian society, and presenters are held to account as much as they are in any diverse forum.

There will be many audience members – as well as fellow panellists and presenters – passionately disagreeing with Dorey’s views, or those of any other speaker for that matter.

Rather than being given a free kick or an open microphone for her anti-vaccination views, Dorey’s attendance at this forum will also allow for an opportunity for her views to be challenged and put under scrutiny in a very public setting.

Pro-vaccination proponents need to be careful that campaigns for radical actions such as demanding sponsors withdraw from Woodford do not end up making a martyr of people like Dorey, as such actions play right into the ‘victim narrative’ exploited by many anti-vaccination advocates.

Although some clearly see it differently, attempts to ‘silence’ Dorey or punish Woodford will be seen by a large proportion of Australians as heavy-handed, intolerant and bullying.

A short-term victory stopping Dorey’s appearance may end up being pyrrhic in nature, unleashing the Streisand effect in full force and serving only to promote her anti-vaccination message to new and previously unexposed audiences.

Groups like the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) are a product of their environment more than they are a cause of it. Parents have questions relating to vaccination, and anti-vaccination advocates have filled the gaps in answering these concerns that pro-vaccination proponents have failed to fill.

In fact, while the public health threat of groups like AVN are very real, the success of groups like AVN should be seen as much as a failure of pro-vaccination advocates to engage with concerned parents, as much as it is due to the anti-vaccination lobby’s success at engaging them.

The approach of most pro-vaccination proponents in disseminating information is somewhat paternalistic in nature. Parents are usually shown data supporting vaccination and told that this should demonstrate an obvious benefit for their child.

Those parents vaccinate are often rewarded, and those who choose to not vaccinate often punished by being denied access to some benefits. Sometimes parents are even admonished for the risks their selfish behaviours will have on the community if they choose not to vaccinate.

General practices are even financially rewarded for improving vaccination rates, which while making sense from a public health perspective provides easy fodder for the conflict-of-interest arguments of anti-vaccination advocates.

However, empathy and engagement are much stronger currencies than data, threats and inducements when it comes to influencing parents, who often base decisions on vaccinating their children on emotion rather than facts.

Pro-vaccination proponents often think that the battalion of data of the safety and success of vaccination should be enough to convince parents to vaccinate their children. This unfortunately results in an approach that has all of the data but none of the empathy.

This may be because pro-vaccination proponents just don’t seem to ‘get’ parents as much as anti-vaccination proponents do.

Becoming a parent does strange things to people. The ability to make rational decisions on the risks affecting their children disappears – that small scratch or rash once observed as a boo-boo on someone else’s child all of a sudden becomes a justified emergency department visit when exhibited on one of your own.

This means that even the minor risks associated with vaccination – even those as trivial as redness at the injection site – become a legitimate concern in the eyes of many parents.

However some vaccination advocates refuse to cede ground on even these minor risks as being important issues, which deviates from parental values and may even serves to fuel the narrative of anti-vaccination groups that the ‘vaccine lobby’ are trying to hide something.

As a public health academic, the numbers supporting vaccination made perfect sense to me, but parents don’t think that way. In practice I was often reminded of the ‘human’ side that affected parental values of vaccination, a side which is all too often ignored by many pro-vaccination proponents.

As a naturopath I saw many concerned parents who had questions on vaccinating their children, and being on ‘the other side of the fence’, they often sought my advice on the issue. What I observed surprised me.

Parents really appreciated being told that there were a few real risks associated with vaccination. It made them feel that they concerns were not taboo and that it was okay to ask questions.

Upon hearing this acknowledgement – often reluctantly given by many advocates – they became more receptive to hearing that not only were these risks incredibly rare but that their own child – not just the abstract concept of herd immunity – was put at greater risk by not being vaccinated than they were by being vaccinated.

Moreover parents became even more receptive when informed that these risks could be minimised – for example by being reminded that a healthy child’s immune system could tolerate vaccination quite easily they could improve their child’s immunity in preparation through optimal breastfeeding and nutritional practices.

For parents being in control was important. For many parents the only control over potential risks that thought they had previously was the option of not vaccinating at all.

Parents were happy when questions about things like toxins were not simply dismissed, and this made them receptive to hearing that the amount of toxins present in the vaccines was probably less than would be found in the food they prepared and ate daily, and was a level that could be easily tolerated by a healthy child’s immune system.

Parents also appreciated getting answers to other questions: that herd immunity no longer offered guaranteed protection in a world of increasing international travel; that autism was rising but there were other factors far more likely than vaccination at play. And the list went on.

Understandably, parents became more receptive to the facts dispelling vaccination myths when they felt they had someone they could talk *with* about these issues, rather than having someone just talking *to* them.

Parents become relieved when told that they could re-book their vaccination appointment if their child was unwell, showing them again that they had some control over risks.

More than anything parents appreciated someone respecting their right to have personal concerns, and they appreciated being able to have someone respectfully answer their questions, no matter how absurd they seemed.

Unfortunately most parents also relayed that their experience in attempting to seek answers from pro-vaccination proponents had not been as engaging, and that often their concerns had usually been casually dismissed as ridiculous, or in some cases were even berated for considering these questions at all.

Many parents aren’t ‘anti-vaccination’ from the outset, but those who do have questions or concerns are often fence-sitters that can be pushed to that view if they find that anti-vaccination proponents are the only ones ready to answer their questions. Being driven by emotion in such decisions they may choose to side with the organisations that treated their concerns with empathy and respect.

One thing that anti-vaccination advocates do incredibly well is engage with concerned parents. Imagine the public health impact if the pro-vaccination movement was as engaging, rather than focusing its efforts on the paternalistic manner in which most vaccination information is currently transmitted to parents.

Wholesale removal of figures like Dorey from public forums such as Woodford serves as a totemic reminder for concerned parents that pro-vaccination proponents aren’t willing to properly engage with them.

Encouraging, not silencing, public forums where the anti-vaccination arguments can be held to proper scrutiny help to engage the community on this important issue.

I do hope that those wanting to challenge Dorey’s opinions will be at the Woodford forums. I will be, and I look forward to seeing them there.

• Jon Wardle is an NHMRC Research Scholar in the School of Population Health at the University of Queensland and Director – Research Capacity Stream of NORPHCAM (Network of Researchers in the Public Health of Complementary and Alternative Medicine).

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