I was skimming my Facebook feed this afternoon, and I had to take a second glance at one of the articles when my brain eventually caught up with what was on the screen.
“Australian nurses who spread anti-vaccination messages will now face prosecution”, it said.
My first reaction was, “Wow … that was unexpected.”
So unexpected, in fact, I initially thought it was a hoax. Then I noticed the story was being reported by several sources, some of which looked reputable. Perhaps this wasn’t a viral meme after all. I went to the Australian Health Practitioner Regulatory Authority’s website to get direct confirmation, and sure enough, it was no joke—AHPRA and the Nursing and Midwifery Board of Australia (NMBA) recently issued a statement saying exactly what was reported.
“The NMBA has become aware that there are a small number of registered nurses, enrolled nurses and midwives who are promoting anti-vaccination statements to patients and the public via social media which contradict the best available scientific evidence. The NMBA is taking this opportunity to make its expectations about providing advice on vaccinations clear to registered nurses, enrolled nurses and midwives.”
“The NMBA expects all registered nurses, enrolled nurses and midwives to use the best available evidence in making practice decisions. This includes providing information to the public about public health issues.”
“Any published anti-vaccination material and/or advice which is false, misleading or deceptive which is being distributed by a registered nurse, enrolled nurse or midwife (including via social media) may also constitute a summary offence under the National Law and could result in prosecution by AHPRA.”
Vaccination is a pet subject for me—I’m a strong advocate for immunisation and I detest those who would misconstrue the science of vaccines to suit their own twisted agenda. I think there’s a special place in hell set aside for Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield.
That said, I’m still a teensy bit uneasy about this new approach by AHPRA, because as much as I hate hearing about people mislead by anti-vaxxers, I want to protect freedom of speech.
Muzzling free speech is a two-edged sword. Yes, you might stop slimy crack-pots like Wakefield from spreading their malicious fiction, but you also run the risk of stifling legitimate debate.
There’s no evidence that vaccines have toxic levels of mercury or aluminium, or that vaccines cause autism or cancer. To suggest otherwise is unscientific, and I have no problems in categorically stating that vaccination opponents are currently wrong. But … what if a legitimate concern about a vaccine arises? I’m not suggesting the evidence for vaccination is unsettled, but rather, what if a new vaccine is developed that does have unforeseen complications? Will gag laws prevent a whistle-blower from coming forward for fear of being tarred as “anti-vaccination”? I wouldn’t put it past the developing drug company from using such a tactic if they wanted an easy way to defend their product.
The other aspect to consider is broader—is this the thin end of the wedge? If we start gagging health professionals from speaking out against the consensus on immunisation, then what’s next? Abortion law reform? Euthanasia? Climate change? Each of these issues remains controversial and each side of each issue claims to have science on its side. Should the side with the perceived ‘consensus’ have the authority or the right to suppress debate from their opponents?
Besides, the problem of anti-vaccination propaganda goes way beyond nurses making comments on social media. AHPRA’s power only extends to registered health practitioners in Australia. It doesn’t stop naturopaths or “nutritionists” from promoting anti-vaccination views, and it seems it hasn’t stopped certain chiropractors from subverting the rules either. It doesn’t stop alternative-health hawkers overseas.
Despite my misgivings, I’m still in favour of AHPRA’s move. It’s a step in the right direction, and it’s being done for the right reasons—to protect patients from rogue operators that would betray their trust—although this edict might need further discussion before extending it to all AHPRA health practitioners.
Perhaps we should focus on promoting the truth instead of trying to suppress the lies. For every anti-vaccination blog, there should be a hundred promoting the science behind vaccines. For every anti-vaxxer celebrity that gets thirty seconds of air time, there should be thirty minutes of air time for reputable scientists and vaccination advocates. Anti-vaxxers should be able to say what they want even if it’s pseudoscience, but they should be prepared to be pilloried by real scientists using proven facts.
Perhaps that’s a better way to protect all the rights of the community.
What do you think? Feel free to leave your comments below.