By Helen Petousis Harris 14/01/2016

Wollongong University has accepted a Doctoral thesis so fatally flawed even an arrested Koala could spot the shortcomings.

The offending work is entitled “A critical analysis of the Australian government’s rationale for its vaccination policy” and well established antivaxer Judy Wilyman was recently accepted as fulfilling the requirements for the award of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

If you are going to blow off every major global health organisation including the WHO, every government, every medical college of experts, you should have a damn good argument. The work has been heavily criticised by Australian experts for good reason. It is almost hard to know where to start and I am just going to explore the one page abstract here. Below my musings are a number of links to further discussion about Wilyman and her ‘work’.

A look at the one page abstract is enough to raise red flashing lights. Let’s go there…

Normally the abstract for a thesis in humanities (and any other academic discipline) needs to include a statement of purpose – like why are you doing this; your methods or approach – what you did; results – what you found and your conclusions and how they fill the gap. Wilyman does none of this in her abstract, it is just a rant.

First sentence:

Vaccination policies in Australia need to be scrutinised because the use of a medical intervention in the prevention of infectious disease has serious health and social implications.

This is not a statement of intent or the identification of a gap in knowledge, it is a conclusion that appears to come before any observation. Who starts an abstract off with their conclusion? This is effectively a priori – you have decided what you expect independent of experience.

So what evidence does she provide in support of this assertion – that vaccines have serious health and social implications? I went to the chapter about evidence underpinning claims about vaccines, a topic I am acquainted with. It starts with:

The aim of this thesis is to assess the rigour of the claims supporting the efficacy, safety and necessity for the use of an expanding number of vaccines in the Australian Government’s National Immunisation Program (NIP).

First there is a discussion about semantics – the importance of the terms vaccination and immunisations (seemingly this has everything to do with vaccine effectiveness). Apparently because the government use the term immunisation on their website they are misleading the public into thinking all people who get vaccinated are immune. This argument is a complete red herring in any discussion about efficacy or safety of vaccines.

The general message from this chapter is that there is little evidence to support the efficacy or safety of vaccines. Her references to support these outrageous comments are from the bottom dwelling literature that includes 50-year-old discussions along with well-established, thoroughly debunked pseudoscience.

At no point does she mention any of the vast scientific literature that includes large clinical and epidemiological studies – or attempt a critique of it. An example is the nonsense from Tomljenovic and Shaw which she accepts without question and serves up as proof of the dangers of HPV vaccine.

Given that this is a core aim of the thesis it begs the question….Did anyone qualified in clinical trials or epidemiology and in particular, vaccinology, examine this work?

Also in the first paragraph:

The Australian government’s NIP, like all member countries of the World Health Organisation (WHO), is recommended by the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI).

What a load of bollocks! GAVI are dedicated to bringing vaccines to the poorest counties of the worlds, they have no interest in Australia and Australia do not base their immunisation programme on the needs of developing countries. The Australian NIP is the result of the recommendations of the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation of the Australian Government Department of Health (aka ATAGI) who in turn are informed by the WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on immunisation (SAGE) and science based medicine.

Wilyman should have at least got that bit right given it appears to be central to her work. The experts on SAGE are completely independent from industry as are those on ATAGI and the conflict of interests statements are kept up to date on the website.

Second paragraph first sentence:

It is important that independent research is carried out to assess whether all the vaccines being recommended today are safe, effective and necessary for the protection of the community.

Fact: Vaccines are the most rigorously researched medicines and the evidence is vast. Wilyman has chosen to ignore it.

Second paragraph second sentence:

It is also important to have comprehensive evidence that it is safe to combine multiple vaccines in the developing bodies of infants.

Fact: Every new vaccine is tested in combination with the other vaccines it is likely to be co-administered with.

Second paragraph third and fourth sentences:

The framework for undone science is used to analyse the Australian government’s claim that the benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks. Whilst the government claims serious adverse events to vaccines are rare this is not supported by adequate scientific evidence due to the shortcomings in clinical trials and long term surveillance of health outcomes of recipients.

‘‘Undone science’’ refers to areas of research bereft of funding and perhaps ignored but that social movements or civil society organisations often identify as worthy of more research. In the case of vaccine safety the science is hardly bereft of funding and most definitely not ‘undone’ it is simply that Wilyman refuses to include any of the actual evidence. This is a gross example of cherry picking among a million orchards of heavily laden trees.

Getting to the end of the abstract:

Her arguments with regard to HPV deny germ theory and call upon the usual antivaxer rhetoric and pseudoscience which she shamelessly cites while dismissing the global scientific data on the topic. What can I say!! Here is just one sentence:

Although an analysis of the postlicensure safety surveillance data for the HPV vaccine has been performed, the analysis only included adverse event data from the US (Slade et al 2009).

This is incorrect. Here is my summary of global post licensure safety data with links to the evidence but there are literally countless others.

Her denial of the 2009-10 influenza pandemic is offensive and disrespectful to all those who lost family members to the disease.

From what I have seen of Wilyman’s work (the term ‘thesis’ implies there was actually a theory to be proved) it is litany of deceitful reveries. How it could possibly pass as a piece of Doctoral level work is inexplicable and it has made no contribution to knowledge. Shame on you University of Wollongong.

Additional links:

See other Sciblogs posts on the University of Wollongong thesis here.

Featured image: Flickr CC, frankieleon.