The truth behind the AVN claims

Tom Sidwell is in his third year of a Bachelor of Science at Monash University. He tells what happened when he decided to look into some of the claims made by the AVN.

As I’m sure most of you know, mid-2009 Ken McLeod submitted his now-famous complaint regarding the Australian Vaccination Network to the New South Wales Health Care Complaints Commission. Meryl Dory, the AVN’s then president, submitted a reply on behalf of herself and her organisation that September.

I’m a third year immunology/microbiology student who has been following these events since they first unfolded. I read Ken’s complaint when he made it and I read Meryl’s reply when it came out. I only recently got involved in the Stop the AVN movement, toward the end of 2009-2010 summer holidays. As it turned out, no one highly active in the Australian side of the movement had the specialist immunology knowledge necessary to assess Ms Dorey’s sources.

No one, that is, until I came along.

Thanks to my course I have had some degree of experience when it comes to reviewing immunology literature – one of my main assessment tasks involved exactly that. So, what do you think I did with the references Meryl Dorey cited in her HCCC reply?

I read them.

That’s right, I read them.

In her reply, she directly references fifteen articles – ten to show research other than the now infamous Wakefield paper to suggest a vaccine-autism link (which the Wakefield paper actually doesn’t), and five articles as proof that vaccines are ‘immune-suppressive’. Of all the articles she cites, the only three to support her conclusions are either from fringe, non peer-reviewed, conspiracy harbouring journals, or written by Wakefield himself. The collection of references is, on the whole, laughable. At best she hasn’t read the papers she cites and includes them out of ignorance, and at worst she is being deliberately deceptive – and I spelled this out very clearly in the analyses I sent to the HCCC.

But wait – it gets better. Not only does Meryl’s submission spell out her utter ignorance of the studies she cites, it leaves behind a far more interesting trail.

In her five ‘immune suppression’ citations there are four errors. Not errors of interpretation, but errors of attribution, such as the wrong author, the wrong journal, the wrong page number, and even an incorrect title. I couldn’t help but feel that this was too sloppy. Sure, I could see Meryl citing references that don’t support her conclusions, or from conspiracy magazines, but to go so far as to change the title of one paper from “Epitopic overload at the site of injection may result in suppression of the immune response to combined capsular polysaccharide conjugate vaccines” to “Vaccines may cause immune suppression” seemed unlikely, and just a bit too dishonest. Perhaps she hadn’t made these errors, but the website she’d copied them from had.

That’s right. These same “errors” appear online, on conspiracy websites, listed as proof of vaccines suppressing the immune system, with the same four errors of attribution.

As detailed in my third submitted document, there are five sites, predating Meryl’s HCCC reply, which list these very citations.

Whether she copied them from there directly or not, the references she included have originally come from biased, conspiratorial and downright unreliable sources. However, it is worth noting that two of these sites were linked directly to by Meryl on her blog, No Compulsory Vaccination, that same month.

I thoroughly look forward to Ms Dorey’s explanation of where she got these five references. There’s no way she can claim she researched them herself, with exactly the same errors of attribution as on those sites. Oh – and no, Meryl. Having re-formatted the reference to title–author(s)–journal details does not mean you researched it yourself. Next time you might like to try a bit of follow up – say, searching for your articles on Pubmed or even – heaven forbid – reading them.

Further reading

The three documents that Tom wrote based on his findings are available here: