“Children, many people will tell you that when you become sexually active you should use condoms to protect yourselves from catching and transmitting disease. But, what they don’t tell you is that condoms are secretly impregnated with diseases. Condoms spread disease – they don’t protect you!”
This, of course, is one of the conspiracy theories spread about condom use. There is no credible evidence of this subterfuge, no credible scientist supports such a wacky claim. But, when someone in authority (e.g. a priest) tells it to those who are trusting and vulnerable, they are apt to believe it.
Imagine now, a similar scenario. A teacher at your child’s school tells them, instead, that there are ‘two sides’ to the government’s campaign to have all children vaccinated against childhood diseases; that the government is actively suppressing the fact that vaccinations are dangerous.
Should a teacher who is actively anti-vaccination be allowed to impart those views to her students? Certainly, students should have the benefit of a balanced argument where there is a genuine scientific disagreement. But, as with the creation vs evolution debate, the vaccination vs anti-vaccination debate is primarily ideological, not scientific. The ‘science’ from both creationists and anti-vaccine campaigners is too often faux-science from fringe dwellers, non-peer reviewed articles, quack ‘medical’ sites or cherry-picked and/or misinterpreted from genuine scientific research.
Today, my friend and fellow blogger, ‘Reasonable Hank’ has raised questions about the intentions of Anna Stancombe, a Queensland science teacher employed by the Queensland College of Teachers, a Queensland government statutory body.
Ms Stancombe is also the administrator of an anti-vaccination Facebook group called Vaccine Education Australia. The group’s ‘byline’ is:
“Educate Before You Vaccinate – showing the risks and dangers of vaccines and the benefits of natural health therapies.”
Natural therapies? Like the homeopathic vaccines recommended by the similarly misleadingly named Australian Vaccination Network? Even the British Homeopathic Association has been forced to admit they don’t work!
The screen captures below show Ms Stancombe a) verifying herself as an administrator of this anti-vaccination group and b) actively spreading unscientific anti-vaccination propaganda:
This last comment, to be blunt, is total rubbish. America’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirm that:
“The viruses in the flu shot are killed (inactivated), so you cannot get the flu from a flu shot. The risk of a flu shot causing serious harm or death is extremely small. However, a vaccine, like any medicine, may rarely cause serious problems, such as severe allergic reactions. Almost all people who get influenza vaccine have no serious problems from it.”
Note, they don’t say that no-one ever had an adverse reaction to a flu shot. They do say, however, that of all the millions of people who receive them, there are very few serious problems. Considering how many people die from the flu each year, the risk of having a flu vaccination is far, far less.
Similarly, the Queensland Health Department confirms:
“You definitely cannot get the influenza from having the flu shot. The flu vaccine contains no live flu virus at all – it’s actually a small dose of parts of inactivated flu virus. However, a small number of people might experience flu-like symptoms such as fever and tiredness as a result of the vaccination.”
Again, no denial that some people may have minor adverse reactions. But, does the flu vaccination cause the flu? No. It’s simply impossible and, quite frankly, a science teacher should know that.
Not surprisingly, the Facebook group, Vaccine Education Australia, for which Ms Stancombe is an administrator, also pushes the scientifically disproven bunkum that there is a causal link between vaccines and autism:
That is not to say, of course, that Ms Stancombe shares this loony view, but I saw no comment from her disputing it.
Now, the fact that Ms Stancombe is a teacher and also happens to be against vaccinations is no crime. She is as entitled as anyone to believe in any tinpot conspiracy theory she wishes. One might raise some concerns about a science teacher who is unable to grasp that an inactivated flu virus cannot cause the flu, but let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.
The fact is, if a teacher believes in leprechauns or magic crystals, that the moon landing was faked, that the American government engineered the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre, that the British Royal Family are really alien reptiles or that long dead great aunt Enid haunts the downstairs broom closet, it is entirely their own business … Until they decide to use their privileged position as a teacher to proselytise their own, particular hobby-horse. This is our concern about Ms Stancombe.
Earlier this week, NSW Green’s MP, John Kaye spoke out about the dangers of anti-vaccination ‘voodoo’:
“The NSW State government has taken action against one of the most disgraceful sources of misinformation, the Australian Vaccination Network.
However there are still far too many parents falling prey to absurd and disproven voodoo claims and conspiracy theories.”
Ms Stancombe took offence, posting on Mr Kaye’s Facebook page:
Fair enough. As I said, there is no law that says teachers have to be reasonable outside of school hours – or that they have to like the Greens!
As often happens with these kinds of issues, Ms Stancombe’s comments were challenged by pro-vaccine advocates and a Facebook mêlée ensued. Par for the course. Move on – nothing to see here (although if you want to see the details, the conversation is covered more fully on Reasonable Hank’s blog).
What is alarming is that at the end of this Facebook debate, Ms Stancombe posted something particularly concerning. She said:
Let me just repeat that:
“I have school tomorrow to teach all about the pros and cons of vaccination. 🙂 I win.”
In the context of this argument, I think it is fair to assume that Ms Stancombe is not aiming to ‘teach all about the pros and cons of vaccination’ in the sense that the CDC and Queensland Health do. As we have seen above, these responsible, science-driven bodies freely admit that a very small number of people have severe adverse reactions to vaccinations. No-one who advocates vaccinations – or any other kind of prescription medication – suggests that there are never any side-effects, sometimes even lethal side-effects. The art of medicine is about balancing risk. No-one in the mainstream medical or scientific communities is hiding that. Any GP will tell you that there are pros and cons with vaccines but, except for a very few (largely identifiable) people, the pros massively outweigh the possible cons.
In concert with the Australian Vaccination Network, Ms Stancombe clearly believes, however, that there is a hidden ‘side’ to the vaccination debate which is not being told – one which she is eager to impart to her students. If this was not the case, how does she ‘win’ the vaccination argument she has been involved with?
Ms Stancombe’s employers may do well to ask exactly what she teaches in her classes. Does she tell her students that vaccinations are dangerous? That the flu vaccine will give them the flu? That measles and chicken pox are ‘harmless’ childhood diseases? That vaccines cause autism? That their own government is in a conspiracy against them?
If so, she is actively undermining the health message of the government which employs her, and may be risking the health of any children in her care. Further, if Ms Stancombe is teaching children and they believe her nonsense, she is putting the health of the next generation of children at risk.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I don’t know what Ms Stancombe teaches or intends to teach in her classroom – or, indeed, whether she teaches children or adults. I do know that she posts publicly against vaccination, that she has made at least one wildly inaccurate statement about the flu vaccine and that, in the context of an anti-vax argument, she has publicly stated that she intends to continue the discussion with her students, thereby ‘winning’ her anti-vaccination argument.
I believe, at the very least, this warrants an investigation from her employer and a warning that her private prejudices should not – indeed, must not – be brought into the class room.
Ms Stancombe’s stance on anti-vaccination is her own business – she is entitled to her own opinion, no matter how misguided. She is not, however, entitled to endanger public health by teaching unscientific nonsense to either children or adults while on the government pay roll.
6 things to say when you’re faced with anti-vaccine rhetoric – Dr Rachael Dunlop, Mamamia