Edit: 14/08/2014 The Sunshine Coast Daily published the letter online as their Letter of the Day.
Dear Mr. Damian Bathersby
RE: False balance in health reporting
I wanted to discuss some concerns I had about an article that appeared in the Sunshine Coast Daily on August 13 “Low vaccination rates spark new campaign”. First I would like to commend the Sunshine Coast Daily for bringing attention to the important issue of vaccination uptake as well as the benefits of vaccination, it is crucial for the future health of our children and indeed ourselves that the general population continue to vaccinate.
That being said I have some significant concerns about the content of the article that I feel need to be addressed urgently and should be considered for future articles. I am sure by now you are aware of the idea of false balance in the media, the term refers to instances in which the media attempts to present two “sides” of a particular issue in the name of fairness and balance where in reality there is no controversy, there is one established position for which there is overwhelming scientific support and a fringe denial element.
Many issues covered by the media are subjective and fall on a grey line. Whether or not a new large supermarket should be built in a quiet country town, or whether people receiving government welfare should work for their payments are issues for which there are obvious pros and cons and need careful discussion. Topics in science however are rarely so grey, science is a discipline based on empirical evidence, a self-correcting process that leads to firm and definitive conclusions over time, these conclusions are reached by the consensus of experts in any given field after careful evaluation of the evidence.
Immunisation is a mature field, vaccines have been a mainstay of public health for over 100 years, the safety of vaccines is well established and is not controversial amongst those that are scientifically literate, not to mention immunologists, virologists and microbiologists. To say the vaccine denial and vaccine danger proponents are a fringe minority is a huge understatement, proponents of such theories have no scientific evidence on their side, in fact they are frequently found to distort and sometimes lie about a variety of factors associated with vaccine efficacy and safety.
Imagine then my dismay when I read the above mentioned article to find the quote of Cyndi O’Meara, it is questionable whether nutritionists are adequately qualified in their own field (compared to say a dietician, a regulated title) let alone even remotely qualified in the area of immunology, as such the opinions Ms O’Meara have absolutely no place in an article about vaccination.
She states “People are beginning to question immunisations and the amount we are having,” it should be noted that the only reason this statement is true is because people such as herself spread misinformation about immunisation not because of any legitimate concerns by experts in the field of immunology. She continues “Maybe they are not as safe as we have been told and they are no longer sure if they should sacrifice their child for the greater good.
“Social media is telling us the truth now.”
She has no expertise in which to speculate about the safety of vaccines, further by stating “as we have been told” is implying some kind of conspiracy that frankly just doesn’t exist, the word sacrifice is an emotionally loaded term that has absolutely no relevance to what happens during the vaccination program in which less than 1 in a 1000 children suffer side effects, and even less, serious adverse events. To suggest that social media is an appropriate source of medical information is absurd given the dangerous amount of misinformation propagated by such means.
“A mother put up how a daughter went to get her cervical cancer vaccine and three hours later she is dead.” This statement lacks detail but is likely a dangerous distortion of an event in which a young girl received the vaccine and was subsequently in a car accident, or perhaps another incident in which the girl who received the vaccine unfortunately dies from a tumour, both are completely unrelated to the vaccination, that this statement was even made in the first place demonstrates the dishonesty of Ms O’Meara.
‘She said she wasn’t against the “philosophy behind vaccines”, but did question “dubious ingredients”.’ This statement is also irresponsible; it is a common tactic by vaccine denialists to use the “just asking questions” gambit, bringing up points that have been refuted over and over again by qualified immunologists, there are no ingredients in vaccines that have been considered dubious, in fact a great deal of research has been conducted into each and every ingredient contained within a vaccine for both safety and effect on efficacy. By being vague and not listing a specific ingredient it makes it hard for readers to research specifically which ingredients are to be considered “dubious”.
This article has raised serious questions in my mind as to the process by which journalists at your publication research their articles and the sources quoted in them, is any attempt made to check into whether sources are appropriately qualified to give an opinion on the topic in question? Are the backgrounds of sources checked for potential bias and motives that may come into play?
This isn’t the first time in the past month that the standards of science reporting in your publication have been substandard, an article published on the 1st of August titled ‘DNA computer to identify Ebola’ contained a table titled ‘World’s Deadliest Viruses’, unfortunately the table contained two organisms that were not viruses. Although this oversight may seem small, as an interface between science and the public publications such as yours have a duty to ensure accurate information is presented to help prevent the propagation of misinformation, when this misinformation takes the form of important public health initiatives a la Ms O’Meara’s comments diligence is even more important.
I look forward to your response on this matter, further I am available for comment on matters such as these as well as others relating to science and pseudoscience.
Regards, Ross Balch BAppSc(MedSc) BAppSc(Microbiol)
President, Brisbane Skeptic Society