Time for a cordon sanitaire?

28 Jun

The politics of autism are enmeshed in the debate about vaccine safety over the past ten years, and will take years to be disentangled. In the UK things might be changing, but in the US high profile celebrities have given a late push to fears that by now should be consigned to history. The BMJ have run a feature piece on the “Vaccine Disputes” currently running, focusing on both the UK and US experience. Here are some points made about the UK’s anti-vaccine movements, that both highlight the problems these groups pose for vaccination policies and autism, and their weaknesses.

One of the main drivers of the safety fears are antivaccine groups. Prominent among the UK groups is Warrington based JABS, whose website still maintains that “some children have and will continue to be damaged by combined and single dose vaccines.” Founder Jackie Fletcher has a son with epilepsy and brain damage, which she blames on the MMR vaccine. Her views are widely quoted by the mainstream media.

Another group is the One Click Group, whose tactic is to circulate by email a digest of antivaccination press cuttings, “Mother wants answers as baby dies from vaccine,” is one recent headline taken from a local paper in Trinidad and Tobago. The group has emailed several members of BMJ staff, all of whom found themselves unable to unsubscribe from the unsolicited email. The group, run by a former public relations worker, Jane Bryant, is especially uncompromising in its message. Ms Bryant first came to prominence campaigning to get chronic fatigue syndrome treated as a medical condition.


Pru Hobson-West, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Applied Bioethics, University of Nottingham, has identified and studied 19 groups in the UK that are critical of vaccinations.5 They included Action against Autism in Glasgow and the London based vaccination.co.uk. She found the groups were all relatively small and led by one or two parents, with a membership base ranging from 60 to 2000.

Ms Hobson-West discovered the more radical groups didn’t necessarily have personal experience of vaccine damage but were often seasoned campaigners for causes such as alternative health and animal testing.

Pru-Hobson-West’s comments ring perfectly true. The same names tend to reappear like weeds in pavement slabs, and a degree of cross-over of key individuals between organisations seems apparent. What we have are highly motivated axe-grinders, some of whom may be motivated because they feel they have genuine grievances. Some, however, are complete crackpots with no stake in either vaccine safety or autism, apart from slightly unhinged views on a variety of subjects. These lead them to take an anti-vaccine stance. So, we have alternative health practitioners with a ideological opposition to vaccines, obsessional individuals who think Roy Meadows is part of a huge establishment conspiracy, and the author of a website that believes vaccines are part of a genocidal plan, while at the same time promoting holocaust denial material. The One Click Group has even resorted to homophobic arguments. These are not people to be taken seriously. In fact, these are people to studiously avoid. Any autism organisation would do well to throw up a cordon sanitairearound such parties and their associates. Here’s how they treat individuals.

David Salisbury, director of immunisation at the Department of Health, says he has received threats at home and at work from activists. He says the “degree of anger” seems similar to that of animal rights activists. “One GP who used to be connected to JABS recommended that capital punishment was appropriate for me. Why should I accept it? This degree of personalisation.”

Neither Generation Rescue nor JABS replied to my questions.

The One Click Group was hostile when I approached them with some straightforward questions. I was directed to another charity and, bizarrely, Peter Fletcher, former chief scientific officer at the Department of Health. When I asked to be taken off its mailing list I was told: “Unsubscribing from the One Click News Alerts requires one mouse click. If this is beyond you, never mind eh?”

And yet the media (including the BBC and broadsheets) continue to give these organisations publicity.

Professor Salisbury says: “There is no doubt that the media give disproportionate weight to the [antivaccine position]. Look at the frequency that journalists writing articles about immunisation go to Jackie Fletcher for a comment.”

“For some campaigners no study is acceptable if it continues to show no link—you get answers by rote: the study was weak, didn’t look at the right children, didn’t use the right method. It’s like AIDS denialists, and there are evidence denialists. The constituency base [of these groups] has got narrower and narrower. There are a diminishing number of people who think [there is a link]. Look at the number of people who contribute to the JABS website; it’s down to a tiny number.”

He’s right. These groups are increasingly talking to themselves (at least in the UK). They have nothing to offer.

One Response to “Time for a cordon sanitaire?”

  1. Chris June 28, 2009 at 06:10 #

    Wait, the One Click Group actually wrote “never mind eh?”

    I object in that they are trying to mask their obvious rudeness by pretending to be Canadian.

    I do applaud that in the author’s attempt to contact and deal with these organizations, they have shown their true colors. They are small groups with an agenda, which seems to be on some kind of fringe… whether it be non-reality based health beliefs or rights for animals. The main thing is that child health is not a big priority, it is just one of their many side issues.

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