This week saw new vaccination coverage statistics released by the National Health Performance Authority and they were generally encouraging showing an average slight increase overall.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, the lowest rates were in Byron Bay where only 66% of 5 year olds are fully covered. One a positive note, the number of children not fully immunised lowered by nearly 2,000 compared to the previous year (75,002 in 2012–13 compared to 76,769 in 2011–12). Of these, 15,000 are registered as vaccine refusers

The media jumped on the story and as a result, those of us who occasionally comment on issues surrounding vaccination where asked to contribute. Disappointingly, we spent a fair bit of time fighting off media who were seeking to do false balance. If you’re not familiar with the concept of false balance, I’ve written about it here and here. Also please read this excellent blog also covering false balance from Thursday.

In the wash-up though, most of the media was sensible, science based and factual (some were just amazing – see this Studio10 clip here)

But the usual suspects featured in stories with false balance. For example, one well known anti-vaccine activist and friend to the AV-SN was featured as “just a Mum” (sure, no conflict of interest there).

And even worse and more worrying, the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) were once again in the mix.

*NB, Kenny Lydall begins this story bragging that he’s been to rural Africa and has not had even one vaccination. This raises the question, was he allowed to enter Australia with no yellow fever vax papers?

These guys should know better, especially since they seem to be one of the few professionals left that enable the AV-SN via “debates” (see below for examples). (And yes, Steve Hambleton, I didn’t miss you there either).

I dunno why they keep having to be told, I mean George Carlin says it well.

“Never argue with an idiot. They will only bring you down to their level and beat you with experience.”

or here you just substitute creationists for anti-vaxers

“Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon; it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.” — Scott D. Weitzenhoffer

Or how about this one

“Never mud wrestle with a pig, because you’ll both get dirty and the pig likes it.” — Anonymous

These debates achieve nothing for the scientist. On the other hand, they lend the quack undue legitimacy and look good on their CV (but not yours). You might say meh, who cares, but you only need to look to the families that the AV-SN have vilified over the years to see the damage this kind of stunt inflicts. It twists the knife. It’s hurts.

NCIRS, please stop it.

At SAVN, our approach has always been to ask before we say yes. It’s simple really, a reporter calls you, asks you to do a segment, you say “who else will be on, what’s your angle”?. If the reporter says they plan to do false balance, we explain why it is bad, and if they still want to do it, we politely decline.


This approach works BTW. It has resulted in one prime time news show (The Project) publicly stating (on air) that they no longer speak to anti-vaxers. Another (ABC – gov broadcaster) sent a memo to all staff warning them not to speak to the AVN unless they make it clear they are nothing but an anti-vaccine lobby and their spokesperson has no qualifications.

From my own experience, a few months ago, I terminated an interview half way through because the interviewer said they had spoken to Meryl Dorey. Even though they had already interviewed her, they didn’t go ahead with the story in the end. Why? Well maybe partly because they had no “controversy” anymore, and also partly because I took the time to explain to them why false balance is bad (again, see my previous article here for a thorough explanation) but I also filled them in on some details about Ms Dorey herself.

Below is a conversation I had with Dr David Hawkes and a journo from ABC 730. (He didn’t respond after I took the time to explain why we say no to false balance).

Other ways we are attempting to quash false balance regarding vaccination is by getting in touch with journos/ news outlets when they do a good job, just to say thanks. For example some mates of mine did a Follow Friday on Twitter this week for media outlets who do not promote false balance. Apart from just being nice, this also creates a repoir with journos, and establishes contact so that next time they have a story, they might remember to call you.

One of the issues with Thursday was we were essentially playing whack-a-mole, and we are aware that we need to develop a pro-active strategy rather than a reactive one.

More work to do, but at least for the time being we have stopped the AVN (in name). And thanks to the media who have helped us along the way.

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