The deceptively named ‘Australian Vaccination Network’ (AVN) is a rabid anti-vaccination lobby group, spreading unsubstantiated fear, uncertainty and doubt while purporting to ’empower people to make informed choices’. Skeptics have long criticised the unscientific and often bizarrely implausible beliefs of the group.
It was therefore with some surprise that a member of Stop The AVN (SAVN) discovered the Australian Embassy in Tokyo included a link to the infamous AVN’s homepage on their immunisation information page, a list of vaccine-related resources for travellers interested in visiting our shores.
The unfortunate reference was discovered with the ‘link:’ operator on the Google search engine, which allows you to check which sites link to a provided URL. So, for example, to find sites linking to the Australian skeptics, you could enter ‘link:skeptics.com.au‘ (without quotes) into Google.
While most links to the AVN are from other paranoid conspiracy sites, a number of legitimate sites also linked to the group. In addition to the Tokyo embassy, a New Zealand community health site had a reference and has since removed it, thanks to SAVN.
In the case of the embassy, this was unlikely to have been a deliberate endorsement: the Australian Vaccination Network’s name is a misleading one. It’s more likely that embassy staff or a webmaster had researched their vaccination links somewhat hastily. Nevertheless, it is incongruous for an Australian Government embassy to link to a site whose intention is to undermine the same government’s health policy.
A quick flurry of e-mails and the problem was solved. A number of Stop The AVN members contacted their MPs along with the Minister for Health who ensured the link was taken down immediately.
Reputable sites linking to the AVN don’t just inadvertently mislead those seeking credible information. Google uses the links between sites to gauge the relevance of each Web page. So a site that is hyperlinked by many pages will receive a higher ‘Page Rank’. Not only this, but sites with a high Page Rank themselves confer a higher credibility on other sites when they in turn link to them. A high-profile site like an embassy’s would not only mislead travellers by linking to the AVN, but would actually enhance their online ‘reputation’.
In the light of this, the swift reaction by Stop The AVN and the government is good news for the public.