Stop the AVN is a grassroots organisation in Australia set up to counter the anti-vaccination propaganda of the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN).
The AVN was set up in 1994 by Meryl Dorey in order to promote alternative views on vaccines. According to their website their aims are to medically-referenced information on vaccine safety and effectiveness, support parents who do not wish to vaccinate and lobby to ensure mandatory vaccines are not introduced (Australian Vaccination Network 2013).
In 1998 the Australian government initiated a measles control campaign in response to epidemics of the disease in Australia in the early nineties (World Health Organisation 2007). Prior to the campaign the AVN accused the government of bullying and encouraged their members to "Do anything and everything you can to ensure that this vaccination campaign does not take place" (Dorey 1998).
As the campaign to vaccinate children continued, so too did the AVN. In 2002 they campaigned against the Meningococcal vaccine (Dr Trevor Mudge 2002). In 2009 they tried to stop the distribution of both the swine flu and whooping cough vaccine (ABC NEWS 2009).
The latter campaign started following the death of four-month-old Dana McCaffery from pertussis in March 2009. Meryl Dorey disputed the cause of the child’s death, insisting on several occasions that Dana had not dies of whooping cough, and that her parents, and the medical profession were “turning her into a martyr because she supposedly died of whooping cough” (Lateline 2010) (McCaffery 2010).
In response to the anti-pertussis-vaccine campaign launched by the Australian vaccination network, a grassroots organisation called Stop-The-AVN was formed. The organisation is made up of 2,000 scientists, doctors, nurses, paramedics and laymen who believe that the anti-vaccination propaganda used by the AVN is a danger to public health (Stop the AVN 2010).
The aim of the group is to counter the claims of the AVN and to encourage event organisers and the Australian media to reconsider hosting Meryl Dorey. Utilising their highly qualified membership, the group spends a large amount of time counteracting and correcting misinformation spread by the AVN online. They have co-operated with media outlets, often pointing out instances of false balance or areas where the AVN may have mislead reporters. In addition, they use social media to organise protests or to highlight events that are uncritical of the AVN (McLeod 2011).
StopAVN ran a campaign against Dorey’s appearance at the Woodford Folk Festival in January 2012. Dorey was billed as an expert speaking on Autism and Toxicity. StopAVN organised their members to contact the festival, the sponsors and media and express their disappointment that the AVN were being given a platform to spout misinformation on vaccines. While Dorey still spoke at the festival, her talk was changed from a solo lecture to a debate with a senior immunologist (The Woodfordia Mail 2011). The StopAVN group also paid for a banner with the words “Vaccinations Saves Lives” to be flown over the festival for the two hours Dorey was scheduled to speak.
The Woodford Folk Festival was probably the most obvious of StopAVN’s campaigns. However in conjunction with this, the group make members available to the press, for interviews or debates. And over the last few years, the group have also been responsible for several legal challenges against the AVN.
In 2009, Ken McLeod (Australian Skeptics, and StopAVN) filed a complaint against the AVN with the New South Wales Health Care Complaints committee, alleging that the AVN made unsubstantiated healthcare claims (Hall 2009). The HCCC finished their investigation in July 2010 and found that the AVN “misleads readers by using reliable and peer-reviewed research, but quoting selectively from it, often in contradiction to the conclusions or findings of the studies themselves" (NSW Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) 2010). The HCCC directed the Australian Vaccination Network to display a disclaimer on their site, which the AVN declined to do, pending an appeal.
While this was on-going, StopAVN also made other complaints against the AVN group, alerting copyright owners that their work may have been appropriated by the AVN and sold without permission (Benson 2010). A complaint was lodged with the NSW Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing alleging that the AVN had illegally raised funds between 2007 & 2009. After an investigation the OLGR found that there were breaches and revoked the AVN’s charitable status (McMillan 2010) (Dorey, Australian Vaccination Network 2010). In December 2012 the New South Wales Office of Fair Trading, after receiving complaints that the Australian Vaccination Network’s name was misleading, issued a formal order that they group change its name. They had until March 21st to lodge a new name with the department. They are contesting the name change requirement. (ABC News 2013) (Dorey, Government puts boot into the AVN, Democracy and the Truth 2012).
Throughout the last four and a half years the StopAVN campaign has pursued a many headed public relations campaign against the Australian Vaccination Network. In public, they have protested the uncritical inclusion of the AVN and Meryl Dorey on TV, Public Lectures and festivals. And in private they have investigated the network and where they found breaches of the law, made complaints against them. As a result the anti-vaccine movement is on the backfoot and facing legal challenges on all sides.
While conducting my review of the Stop AVN campaign, I realised that this particular fight was a battle between two PR machines. The Anti-Vaccination group had a good ten years start on the Pro-vaccination group, but StopAVN in the end, had more experts, both legal and medical willing to volunteer time and energy into their campaign.
It is interesting to note that the PR campaign associated with the traditional scientific project of NASA’s Rover was successful due to its adoption of modern social media, viral videos and gaming consoles, while this more fluid grassroots organisation was very effective using older methods of providing speakers and experts to news stations and papers.
What the two campaigns have in common is a willingness to connect and be available to the public. From looking at the two campaigns I believe that this is what made them successful.