A CURIOUS book landed on my desk recently with the catchy title, Anyone who tells you vaccines are safe and effective is lying. Here’s the proof.
Just another anti-immunisation crank, you might think, except that the author is one Dr Vernon Coleman, an English GP who, according to the cover endorsements, has been dubbed “king of the media doctors” by The Independent.
What makes somebody who has gone through the rigours of a medical degree or other scientific education succumb to the temptations of anti-science, the bizarre conspiracy theories that lurk in dark corners of the internet and elsewhere?
The scientists who sought to deny the link between HIV and AIDS — or even, in some cases, that AIDS actually existed — are still out there, peddling their often bizarre views, though they don’t get the media attention they once did.
Dr Peter Duesberg, a professor of biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology at the University of California, Berkeley, has long argued AIDS does not have a viral cause, suggesting it might instead be the result of long-term drug use. One of his articles was “permanently withdrawn” by Medical Hypotheses in 2009 after a series of complaints.
Back in 1994, one of his admirers, American physician Dr Robert Willner, deliberately stabbed himself with a bloody needle fresh from a man claiming to be infected with HIV.
Willner, who had his medical licence revoked in Florida after claiming to have cured an AIDS patient with ozone infusions and who died suddenly in 1995, described the needle stunt as “an act of intelligence”.
It had, he said, nothing to do with promoting his book, Deadly deception: the proof that sex and HIV absolutely do not cause AIDS.
These guys certainly have a knack with titles.
Another thing these maverick doctors often seem to have in common is an air of courageous martyrdom.
Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced and deregistered British doctor who claimed to have uncovered a link between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism, says he has stuck by a belief that has “cost me my job, my livelihood and my country”.
He told the New York Times earlier this year he believed public health officials and pharmaceutical companies were paying bloggers to plant vicious rumours about him online.
Similarly, Dr Coleman writes in the preface to his book: “Experience tells me that this book will bring me much trouble, a great deal of abuse, a number of threats and considerable personal and professional inconvenience. But I firmly believe that vaccination is one of the most offensive and dangerous of all modern medical practices …”
And so on. And so on.
Is it their opposition to the mainstream that creates the colossal self-pity so many scientific mavericks seem to display, or do they have an innate desire for martyrdom that pushes them into becoming contrarians in the first place?
Either way, their formal qualifications lend them an unwarranted credibility when they speak to a public that is often ill equipped to evaluate the claims of an individual “expert”.
Wakefield, now resident in the US, will no doubt continue to trumpet his anti-MMR message to eager audiences, and Dr Coleman will continue to write books with titles like Power over cancer and Why doctors do more harm than good. (I can’t imagine what the one called I hope your penis shrivels up! is about, though I can tell you it’s listed under psychology/sociology.)
For all the efforts medical schools make to assess candidates’ psychological suitability, I’m betting they’ll never find a test that screens out those who are likely to embark on an obsessive crusade against their own profession.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.
Posted 21 November 2011