Feature

Immunisation researchers re-open anti-vaccination PhD debate


Doug Hendrie


11/04/2019 3:21:29 PM

A new peer-reviewed journal article takes aim at a controversial PhD awarded to one of Australia’s most vocal anti-vaccination activists.

Vaccination
PhD and anti-vaccination activist Dr Judy Wilyman believes ‘there is no justification to mandate any vaccine in Government policies in Australia’.

The Vaccine paper, ‘PhD thesis opposing immunisation: Failure of academic rigour with real-world consequence’, is aimed at quashing the credibility gained by anti-vaccination activist Dr Judy Wilyman when the University of Wollongong controversially awarded her a humanities doctorate for a thesis questioning Australia’s vaccine program in 2015.
 
Dr Wilyman, who runs the website Vaccination Decisions, has since used her authority to act as a paid expert witness in at least four court cases between estranged parents, where one parent wishes to vaccinate their children and the other does not.
 
The Vaccine paper states that:
 
The award of [a] PhD by a reputable university has validated the thesis’ claims and allowed the author to add weight to her subsequent prolific writings, including open letters to politicians and seminars to parents, with consequences on a national and international scale.
 
According to the paper, these consequences include non-vaccinating parents citing the PhD as support for their decision, and Dr Wilyman’s use of her PhD to claim to be an expert witness. 
 
Professor Peter McIntyre, who is on the World Health Organization’s (WHO) peak advisory body on immunisation, is the paper’s lead author. He told newsGP that he and his co-authors wrote the paper as an effective way to challenge the quality of Dr Wilyman’s thesis, which has been downloaded more than 21,000 times.  
 
‘We’re not immunisation apologists pouring boiling oil on hapless soldiers below. Criticising how immunisation policy is developed is completely legitimate,’ he said.
 
‘But there’s no evidence in the thesis that it’s been undertaken in an unbiased, comprehensive way.
 
‘If you’re going to take on a topic like this, you can’t shield yourself behind the idea that you’re a social scientist and you don’t do evidence. You have to go to considerably greater lengths than were gone to demonstrate an unbiased view of the evidence.’
 
Professor McIntyre, who until recently was the director of the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS), has been a frequent public critic of Dr Wilyman and the decision to award her doctorate. The paper’s co-authors include three University of Sydney professors.
 
‘There has been a lot of heat and noise about this, but the university has dug in, saying it’s all about academic freedom,’ Professor McIntyre said.
 
‘Given [Dr Wilyman’s] thesis kept being downloaded and referred to and emerging in court cases as a source of expert evidence, we felt that the most effective way to deal with it was to get something in peer-reviewed literature, setting out what her thesis was saying and the flaws in it.
 
‘[Gaining a PhD] gives you a degree of kudos and recognition and this has been used by [Dr Wilyman]. We’re hoping this critique might make your average legal firm more reluctant to take her on as a witness.’

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Professor Peter McIntyre said while criticising the manner in which immunisation policy is developed is ‘completely legitimate’, there is no evidence Dr Wilyman’s thesis has ‘been undertaken in an unbiased, comprehensive way’.

The Vaccine paper states that critique of immunisation policy is a ‘valid academic exercise that goes beyond technical knowledge, but equally it cannot be based on incomplete, flawed technical assertions’.
 
[Dr Wilyman’s PhD] legitimately highlights the importance of transparency and accessibility in the processes by which vaccines are assessed for inclusion on any national immunisation schedule. It also raises the importance of perceptions about conflicts of interest among contributors to immunisation policy development, and the need for open conversation about policy decisions among all immunisation stakeholders, including the public.
 
However, the paper is highly critical of much of the substance of the thesis:
 
The quality of the writing and presentation of the thesis is such that many of its arguments could seem plausible to an examiner without specific content knowledge, despite sound academic credentials. Our combined expertise (vaccinology, epidemiology, the history and practise of immunisation policy development globally and in Australia, social science) and as PhD examiners, both gives us detailed knowledge of the sources cited by the thesis, and allows us to identify key deficiencies.
 
It summarises the key flaws as uncritical analysis due to highly selective referencing, flawed arguments ignoring key data such as safety and efficacy studies, misleading and broad assertions, and incomplete research.
 
Dr Wilyman’s thesis is framed as an assessment of the Australian Government’s rationale for vaccination policy, but cites popular anti-vaccination claims, such as suggesting infectious diseases were declining before mass vaccination, raising concerns around the safety of vaccine manufacture, and questioning the link between human papillomavirus and cervical cancer.
 
The thesis also claims the 2009 swine flu pandemic was declared by a ‘secret WHO committee that had ties to pharmaceutical companies that stood to make excessive profits from the pandemic’.
 
‘All the things she’s raised are not new. They’ve been raised in the past and dealt with,’ Professor McIntyre said.
 
In a lengthy statement to newsGP, Dr Wilyman rejected the criticism of her thesis.
 
‘My thesis provides evidence that vaccines are not safe for all children and that children’s health in Australia has significantly declined since the vaccination program expanded in 1990,’ she said.
 
‘The thesis demonstrates that the chemicals in vaccines are a plausible cause of this rise in illnesses or disability and deaths in children and this needs to be considered in a debate about how many vaccines are necessary to use in children.
 
Dr Wilyman claims the Vaccine paper is based on false information, and Professor McIntyre and co-author Professor Margaret Burgess, who founded the NCIRS, are defending their policy decisions.
 
She further alleges the paper’s authors are ‘participating in the suppression of academic research and valid scientific arguments regarding vaccination’.
 
‘I have … provided definitive evidence that the majority of Australian children were not at serious risk of death or illness due to infectious diseases before the vaccines were introduced,’ she said.
 
‘Hence I have suggested that some vaccines are unnecessary and that no vaccine has ever created herd immunity in a community by being used with an uptake rate of 95% to reduce deaths and illnesses to any infectious disease.
 
‘This means there is no justification to mandate any vaccine in Government policies in Australia.’
 
Professor McIntyre said he is not trying to convince Dr Wilyman herself.
 
‘If you’ve got a very strongly-fixed belief about something that’s critical to your world view, it becomes very important to cling to it, no matter what,’ Professor McIntyre said. ‘The presentation of evidence against it entrenches your views more.’
 
Professor McIntyre warns that anti-vaccination is leading to major health issues, particularly in Europe.
 
‘They’re having major problems with large groups rejecting immunisation. You’re having large measles outbreaks, with tens of thousands of cases and several deaths,’ he said.  
 
Cases of the highly contagious measles virus are spiking in Australia this year, with the ABC reporting 92 confirmed cases in the first quarter of the year compared to 103 for the whole of 2018.
 
Australia has one of the highest rates of vaccination in the world, with the proportion of fully immunised five-year-olds hitting a record high of 94.5% last year.



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