Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Anti-Vaccination Groups: What's In a Name?

I just finished reading a piece on Slate written by Phil Plait entitled Antivaxxers Using Billboards to Promote Their Dangerous Message and I couldn't help but give a shout-out for an amazing article.

Plait speaks about the unfortunately named "National Vaccination Information Center" or NVIC, and how they are quick to point out what their perceive as "risks and failures" of vaccines, yet they never seem to mention any of the benefits.  The President of the NVIC, Barbara Loe Fischer, claims that she wants to have an honest discussion about vaccines, but the reality is she is only concerned with presenting her side of the issue and you will not find any pro-vaccine materials on her website (nor will you find peer-reviewed science detailing the effectiveness of vaccines).

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Plait would find fault with the NVIC, because he himself is a scientist. He understands the scientific method, he understands that we need to let the science guide our beliefs rather than opinions and anecdotes, therefore I'm not at all shocked to learn his feelings of the NVIC.  In fact, any reputable student of the sciences or even anyone with an open mind should come to the same conclusions.

If an organization wishes to be anti-vaccine that is certainly their right.  I'll even support their right to do so provided they aren't dishonest about what led them to hold those views.  However, when an organization like the NVIC pretends to want an open and honest discussion about vaccines while actually promoting an obvious bias against vaccines and while refusing to acknowledge published data surrounding the safety and efficacy of vaccines... well then they have crossed the line into quackery and thus they don't deserve a place at the table.

Clearly people like Fischer and the other members of the NVIC's leadership team aren't concerned with educating the public about the pros and cons of vaccines but rather they are only concerned with spreading their unscientific antivaxxer viewpoints.  I find that upsetting not because of the message itself, but because they go out of their way to create these false front organizations with clever names that are actually designed from the start to confuse people.  Just look at their name: "National Vaccination Information Center".  That suggests by visiting their website you might actually find unbiased information about vaccines... but that simply isn't true, and it is nothing short of a marketing tactic designed to deceive - all in the name of spreading misinformation.

This is one case where I think other nations do a better job than we do in the United States. For example in Australia they have a group very similar in scope to the NVIC that goes by the name of "Australian Vaccination Network" (AVN). Prior to that name, they called themselves "Vaccination Awareness Network".  Both of these names are extremely misleading and suggest that someone visiting them could expect unbiased information about vaccines.  However the truth is, the AVN is a well known anti-vaccination group whose sole mission is to provide information against vaccination.  They have no interest in providing both sides of the issue, they have no interest in providing peer-reviewed data surrounding the efficacy of vaccines, and they have no interest in acting as a source of reputable unbiased vaccine information.

This is why, in December 2012 the New South Wales Office of Fair Trading issued an order for the AVN to change its name as the current name was misleading the public.  They have until tomorrow (March 21st) to change their name or they may face deregistration - although as of this writing their website is still operating under the Australian Vaccination Network name.

The obvious question at play here is - why don't they simply change their name to the "Australian Anti-Vaccination Network" or even simply "Anti-Vaccination Network" so they could keep using the same acronym?  That would be a much more accurate representation of their true purpose, and updating their letterhead and business cards would be quick and easy!  Yet we know they won't willingly allow the public to be alerted to their stance because their goal is to confuse the public and mislead them into thinking they are being presented with both sides of the issue when in fact they are nothing but a front for a well funded anti-vaccination group.

Anyway, the original point is that Australia saw a name which was misleading and downright dishonest, and they did something about it.  If the US did the same, the "National Vaccination Information Center" would be forced to use a name that is more in line with their purpose as well... which would likely result in them being called something like the "National Anti-Vaccination Information Center" or "The Anti-Vaccination and Anti-Science Center of America" (or TAVASCA if you prefer).  Better yet perhaps they could use my personal favorite name of "Barbara's Anti-Vaccination Emporium".  You have to admit no matter what you think of vaccines, there is a certain ring to any name with the word 'emporium' in the title.

So this all makes us wonder - why are antivaxxers so determined to mislead the public?  Why must they purposefully choose names for their little organizations that cloud their true goals?  Why do they hide behind clever marketing rather than admitting their primary purpose is to spread anti-vaccine propaganda?  It certainly seems if they were proud of their stance against vaccines, and if they were really concerned with educating the public on their point of view, the very first thing they would do is use a name that is reflective of those viewpoints... yet antivaxxers never do.  I find that incredibly telling, and it shows us right from the start that antivaxxers have no interest in having honest discussions about vaccines.