Focus: Syndey – Tilting at the immunisation windmill

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 07 June 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:1641
  1. Simon Chapman

    Until recently the anti-immunisation lobby in Australia has received only a fraction of the media coverage of those promoting vaccines. Most of this coverage has been concentrated in two sylvan rural regions where accusations of medicopharmaceutical conspiracies find fertile ground among enclaves of people with alternative life styles.

    Last year, however, the anti-immunisation cause received a huge boost when a prestigious national TV science programme, the ABC's Quantum, broadcast two programmes that framed immunisation as a controversy with the proverbial two sides. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health published a special supplement attacking the programmes' claims. Nevertheless, the damage was done.

    Last month a leading Sydney school of journalism hosted a seminar, ostensibly on medicine and the media. The Quantum journalist and Australia's leading advocate of removing fluoride from drinking water, Mark Diesendorf, spoke along with three health journalists. The event disintegrated into a fracas between evidence based evangelists and advocates of every known conspiracy theory.

    Diesendorf proposed that water fluoridation had become dangerously sacrosanct, with too few people willing to tell the real story. Norman Swan, from ABC's Health Report, replied with an impassioned analysis of the anti-fluoride movement and the consequences for the health of poor and aboriginal communities should the movement succeed. Branding the movement as largely middle class phobics, Swan argued that if fluoride was removed from drinking water the educated classes (whose children brushed their teeth three times a day with fluoride toothpaste) would be largely unaffected, while the existing class differential in dental caries would widen still further. Compelling support for this comes from a large Australian study of differences in caries between children of different social classes with different exposures to fluoride.

    News values that extol Quixotic voices in the wilderness and claims about impending doom from new technology explain much of the attraction of anti-fluoride and anti-immunisation theories for journalists. When asked why a newspaper had run a spate of stories speculating about the radiation danger from mobile phones but said nothing about the lives they had saved through emergency calls, a journalist replied that “there is no news in people making phone calls–everyone knows you can do that.”

    The seminar presented a frightening prospect. The audience–largely students of journalism and hence tomorrow's journalists–sent a ripple of contempt through the room when anyone sought to deflate the whistleblowing heroics of those who dared to question immunisation. For many there if an agent was imposed and promoted by doctors and drug companies, it must inevitably lead to a gruesome consequence.

    Many in health make the mistake of assuming journalists are natural conscripts to public health campaigns. While there are many happy coincidences between the stories that sell newspapers and those that alert communities to take health preserving actions, the attraction of anti-vaccine rhetoric shows that these values often cut the other way. With only 52% of Australian children completing their immunisations and four deaths from pertussis in New South Wales in 1997, the media's seduction by the anti-immunisation lobby is beginning to look deadly serious.

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