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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 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.

***

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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Comments 10

  1. Jason Brown says:

    While some interesting points are raised, I can’t say I agree.

    First of all, Dorey is presenting in the forum, true. However she also has two seminars other than the forum, in which, presumably, there’ll be no-one else with a microphone to challenge until a controlled Q & A at the end (And if Dorey’s previous events are anything to go by, that Q & A itself may be “delayed because we couldn’t cover everything”).

    Secondly, yes, there is a risk of alerting previous dormant antivaxers and making them active as a result. You fail to mention that there’s a concomitant “risk” of activating previously dormant pro-vaccinators. Given that antivax is a minority view, I suspect there’ll be more outrage than sympathy, by an order of magnitude at least.

    Thirdly, and I have to question this even though I’ll be inevitably accused of ad hominem tactics – you’re a research scholar at an alt-med unit? Presumably you’ll be aware that there’s a strong correlation between enthusiasm for “alternative” (read unproven) medicine and antivax sympathies? Could you please disclose your interest in more detail? If Meryl Dorey can cry foul over conflicts of interest on a regular basis, I should at least be allowed to enquire.

    Some other key points: Dismissing herd immunity as an ‘abstract concept’? Spruiking the ill-defined alt-med bogeyman of ‘toxins’?

    I call concern troll.

  2. Cajela says:

    Rubbish. If Woodford were promoting her views as controversial, you might have a point. But in their 2009 program they obsequiously labelled her as “Australia’s leading expert in vaccination”, with “unbiased and well-researched knowledge”. This is a complete and utter lie. The current program calls it “necessary for anyone who has a family”. Unalloyed promotion.

    Nothing is mentioned of the NSW Health Care Complaints Commission’s public warning about Ms Dorey and the AVN. Nor the withdrawal of charity status from the AVN due to their shady books, as well as their promotion of public illness. Where do you draw the line on free speech, if not at out and out lies that kill children?

    I might add that not giving her a privileged podium to tell her lies is not the same as denying free speech, anyway. She still has her website and facebook and twitter and is perfectly free to go stand on a soapbox in the Domain.

  3. Clarke Alden says:

    I agree completely with Cajela, Ms Dorey is not being promoted as being controversial but as being an expert. I think its time to call a spade a spade and Meryl Dorey is as much an expert on vaccinations as G. W. Bush is on world affairs, and hey they are both american.

  4. Phil Kent says:

    Well put Cajela. There is nothing to add except to add my support to removing Meryl Dory from the schedule.

  5. White Lillian says:

    Wow. That’s the most sensible, sane thing I’ve ever read on the vaccination debate. Thank you for identifying so clearly how I’ve felt as a parent about vaccinating my children. I’m lucky to have a GP who talks to me and not at me, but not everyone is so lucky. It is so confusing, especially when people start telling you you’re putting your child at risk of things like autism by doing it. But, ultimately, people will make the best choice they can by weighing up all the evidence.

    I also think you’re totally right about the Woodford Folk Festival keeping her on as a speaker. I’ve been going since I was 10 and I’ve seen so many weird, wonderful and controversial things there, all of which i’ve used my grey matter to decide whether or not I’m in favour of. I’m sick of being told that as a parent I need to be protected from dangerous ideas. I’m a big girl and I can make up my own mind-so can everyone else who attends. I get the sense from reading the posts on the Festival facebook page that most of the people commenting aren’t going to the festival, and don’t have an understanding of the kind of people who do.

    It’s not necessary for people to patronise Woodford Folk Festival patrons by telling them they’re too stupid to see this woman for exactly what she is. We’ve seen the odd charlatan before. Meanwhile, would you all mind taking your debate off the Woodford page and carrying it on somewhere else more appropriate? I’m trying to read about what’s on at the festival I wait all year to go to.

  6. chazzai says:

    I find reactions and attitudes to vaccination intriguing. You only need to look at the comment count on Croakey posts to see how much emotion is stirred up by the subject – it’s the vaccination posts that get the comments.

    I have to say that I agree with Mr Wardle. Encouraging vaccination is far more likely to engage people and build trust by using positive actions, sensible debate and making effort to understand parents. I have no cold hard evidence to back that statement up, by the way, other than my experience of talking to parents about it (I am a GP with a large proportion of my patients young families). A conversation with a vaccine doubter or overt ‘anti-vaxer’ is like a microcosm of the larger community – I used to get irate and despite all my best intentions end up getting wound up and paternalistic.

    Now I’ve started using an approach that emphasises understanding and validation, with complete ownership of my opinions and stressing that I have formed them myself.

    I’ve found my more recent approach much better received and successful.

    So I say let anyone speak. Then speak ourselves. There’s no real need to address anti-vax points – just explain vaccination carefully and it wins by itself.

  7. reasonable says:

    “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.”

    So, what I’m reading here is “if they can’t prove their arguments in the scientific arena [which they can’t, and haven’t], then, let them loose to gish-gallop the public by misrepresenting the science”.

    The Live Debate Gambit. Favourite gambit of all antivaxers and creationists, and Moncktons.

    Do you think there might be a reason why Dorey will not debate anyone in a forum not controlled by her, where people have time to check her citations, then, show her ineptitude and intellectual dishonesty to all witnessing?

  8. reasonable says:

    I have an honest question, Jon. I am not being facetious, or inflammatory. Please respond.

    What *constructive* role does a demonstrable liar (any demonstrable liar, not naming names), play in the public debate of vaccine safety and effectiveness?

  9. ron batagol says:

    I think many of the above comments cover it all!! Also, I suggest a careful read of Rachael Dunlop’s comments and well- expressed concerns is well worthwhile. So I have to ask- just what sort of a collective bad hair day did the organisers of this Festival have when they dreamed up this cockamamie gig? And how come the flat earth society, the psychic surgery exponents and the homeopathists didn’t also get a guernsey?

  10. wardlejon says:

    Hi Reasonable Hank. I understand your reservation and it is a reasonable (*sorry!*) question.

    The constructive role is not that of Dorey, but comes from the open forum itself. Many have (rightly) criticised Dorey for not attending forums over which she had no control of attendees or agenda.

    Her Woodford appearance offers an opportunity for fence-sitters to hear both sides on an equal footing. The evidence for vaccination, when not distorted, makes for a pretty clear case. The evidence against it, again when not distorted, is rather underwhelming. Dorey will be able to be called out on the distortions that often escape scrutiny in many of her more prepared forums. An open forum and debate advantages vaccination, not anti-vaccination.

    However, this is somewhat dependent on the audience, and all are free to make their voice heard at this forum (though admittedly Woodford tickets are anything but free!). Based on my previous experience in the Blue Lotus I envisage lively debate.

    My concern is that removing her will make her a martyr for her cause, which may have more currency for some members of the general public than the facts themselves, and many of them will seek out what she would have said in less open forums, and will be more inclined to empathise with her viewpoint if they believe she had not been given her opportunity to speak (or in this case had it very publicly withdrawn).

    The point I tried to make is that while the scientific case is pretty open and shut, this is not a way in which ‘normal’ people make decisions. If we want to improve vaccination compliance we need to focus on the human element as much as the scientific debate, and engage fence-sitters or concerned parents in much better ways than we do.

    The end point I’m after is better is real-world short- and long-term better vaccination rates, not just a symbolic victory over Meryl in the short-term.

    (and to Jason Brown: Not that it should be relevant but although it is a research interest I’ve mine as my bios testify I’ve never worked in a ‘CAM unit’ anywhere, but in public health schools (Uni Qld) and medical schools in the US (Uni Wash). One of my current consultative roles is developing better immunisation monitoring methods for Brisbane Medicare Locals to improve response for decreasing immunisation rates, and has nothing to do with CAM at all. Ad hominem was probably an apt choice of word to underpin your assumptions)

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