Category Archives: science

Why I am a vaccination advocate

My late Aunt Chris caught polio as a child. This damaged her nervous system, and over the course of her life worsened progressively, a condition known as post-polio syndrome. In the end she suffered numerous health problems because of this. The nerves to her lungs were in the end unable to regulate fluid in her lungs. She then suffered from pneumonia as a result of this and, struggling for breath, died.

Thanks to science, polio is now a vaccine preventable disease. Polio vaccination is safe and effective. Please make sure you and your children are vaccinated against it.

Public liability: AVN, “Dr” David Hendrey & the “Healthy Lifestyle” Expo

Dear Wayne,

I have been speaking with a lawyer, who pointed out to me that liability could arise if an adverse event was suffered as a result of information provided by the AVN or any other exhibitors for that matter. With the right to freedom of speech comes great responsibility, and I am sure that you would be seeking that your exhibitors have public liability insurance that covered such events. I note in fact that your exhibitors kit states: “In particular, the Exhibitor must confirm that the Public Liability Insurance policy held by them covers risks associated with display or merchandise at this Exhibition by the Exhibitor and covers YCHY FOUNDATION and Events”.

Exhibitors would therefore be obliged to report any pertinent details to their insurer regarding the information they provide / devices they sell / etc., such as the HCCC public warning in the case of the AVN, or that your official chiropractor makes false claims to treat autism and HIV. The reason I am raising this with you is that I am concerned, based on rather strong (and I might add defamatory) remarks by Meryl, that she may not have public liability insurance, and that if she does, she may not have advised her insurer of the risks identified by the HCCC in their report. Can you please confirm whether you have received a copy of the AVN’s public liability insurance or not; if so can you please advise me who the insurer is so I can liaise with the Insurance Fraud Bureau of Australia regarding the AVN’s compliance with disclosure regulations.

Warm regards,
Dr Matthew Berryman

Expo organiser Mr Pina-Roozemond responded rather promptly with:

Hi Matthew,

Thanks for the email, just letting you know that I do indeed have a copy of the relevant insurance document.  Taking your lead I called the insurance company to verify that everything was in order and it is.



I’m not entirely convinced that Mrs Dorey would be entirely covered in the event that someone did take her advice seriously, ended up ill, and sued, but I’m not an expert on law or insurance.  I am however pleased that the Expo organisers have considered this, and warned of the dangers of Mrs Dorey’s views and are providing pro-vaccination material:
Screenshot 2014-05-15 13.46.12

Whilst I do take offence at Mrs Robinson having falsely described my robust but polite debate as bullying, I am more offended to hear of bad behaviour on both sides of this issue. I hope the above exchange between myself and Mr. Pina-Roozemond serves as a good example.

Book review: How Animals Grieve

I am reading How Animals Grieve by Barbara J. King, and it’s quite a moving, yet scientific, read. King obviously cares very deeply about animals, and presents her research and that of others, as well as a number of moving stories, yet is very clear about studies vs anecdotes (and the proper use of them), making clear what is on solid basis and what is speculation / uncertain. I’m still part-way through the book, but wanted to get a bit of a review out there as it’s such a great book; I will update this post with any more thoughts if I have them while reading the rest. Any corrections / comments to this post are as always, most welcome.

As an academic with a science/engineering background, I couldn’t help but ponder a few of the statements:

  • The author writes “Death-related behavior in these insects is, as far as we can tell, driven purely by chemicals. While it’s possible that entomologists just don’t know how to recognize displays of insect emotion, I’m comfortable in hypothesizing that ants don’t feel grief for their dead comrades.” As that section stands, though, it’s more of a generalisation; for it to be a hypothesis it must make some sort of prediction, which we don’t get to until King then presents definitions of love and grief and how they are intertwined, a key point of this book, in particular the part “the animal who loves will suffer in some visible way. She may refuse to eat, lose weight, become ill, act out, grow listless, or exhibit body language that conveys sadness or depression.” So to link the two sections of text, and make it a hypothesis: we do not expect ants to show any behaviour that carries some detriment to the individual.
  • King writes “The key to success for at least some nonhuman animals seems not to be pure brain power, but instead a lengthy period of mutual attunement with humans. Thanks to their history of domestication, dogs have had extensive “practice” reading the movements of human companions. DNA science, together with archaeological research, tells us that dogs and humans initiated this process over ten thousand years ago, maybe even as early as fifteen thousand years ago.” Whilst perhaps our ancestors selected dog ancestors to be those who were particularly attuned, perhaps it’s more a case of simply an exaptation of existing behaviour, modified by the nurturing process of raising a dog in a household? This is a bit of a nature vs. nuture debate; I’m not denying there is some selective pressure I just think the ball may lie more firmly in the nuture side.
  • On a cat who can tell when patients in a nursing home are about to shuffle off this mortal coil, King writes “The explanation for Oscar’s death predictions lies, I believe, with the smell of molecules called ketones as they are released from a dying body.” Now I’m not an expert on the biology of dying, but as far as I understand there are some conditions, namely organ failure, where release of ketones may occur prior to death, and others that don’t, leading to this hypothesis: in those patients who suffer organ failure, Oscar the cat would be able to predict, whereas if someone dies suddenly from a myocardical infarction, then Oscar wouldn’t be able to predict that.
  • On the landing of the chimpanzee Ham in his space capsule in the ocean, King writes “Or was he terrified, both because of intense heat and because he was bobbing around untended in the ocean for three hours, not knowing what would happen next? The image is hard for the mind to take, Ham alone in the capsule, with no other being to empathize or to comfort him during what can only have been a truly frightening experience.” Yet I suspect part of the terror in that situation comes from our knowledge that the capsule had holes and was gradually sinking, and our knowledge that that may lead to death. I suspect Ham may have been a bit frightened by the whole experience, landing and water coming in, but not very frightened in the way we feel when we put ourselves in that situation through the act of reading.

Ultimately, the book builds a solid case for both love and grief in a number of different species of animals, according to King’s reasonable and grounded definitions of both. The solid use of narrative makes this a compelling read even for the lay audience it is targeted at, and it’s a deeply moving book with images that I will keep with me for a long time, and make me ponder the beautiful and diverse range of animals that I share this pale blue dot with. If this bit doesn’t tug at your heart strings, and make you realise that animals can show grief, I am not sure what will:

On the following day, before moving on to another part of the Elephant Sanctuary, Sissy made a choice that surprised the people who witnessed it. She placed her beloved tire, her security blanket, on her friend’s grave. There she left it, an elephant memorial offering, for several days.

Answering Human Papillomavirus vaccine concerns; A matter of science and time

In this paper by Dave Hawkes, Candice Lea, and myself, we addressed some common questions about the HPV vaccine and its use in preventing cancer:

Q1: How do we know the HPV vaccine will prevent cancer?

A1: The first HPV vaccine was registered for use in Australia in 2006. Because of the long lead time from HPV infection to the development of cancer, we are currently unable to definitively measure the success of HPV vaccination in reducing the incidence of cervical, or other HPV linked cancers. However, HPV vaccination has already been shown to reduce both HPV infections and HPV-associated pre-cancerous cervical lesions.

The reason we expect a reduction in the rate of certain cancers is by understanding how the virus works. The HPV virus triggers a series of genetic changes, specifically changes in the genes that regulate additional cancer-causing genes. Over time these cells replicate, leading to pre-cancerous lesions in some cases and cervical cancer in others.
 HPV is associated with 99.7% of cervical cancers and is considered a necessary causative factor of cervical cancer. This is despite the knowledge that not every HPV infection progresses to CIN and then to cancer.

Q2: Why is the vaccine being given to boys as well?

A2: HPV vaccination of boys has two major benefits; firstly, it will reduce the transmission of HPV to women and secondly, HPV infection is associated with a number of cancers which males are susceptible to, such as; cancers of the penis (40% HPV association), cancers of the anus (90% HPV association), mouth (3% HPV association) and throat (12% HPV association).

Q3:The vaccine only targets some types of HPV? What about the others?

A3: The two most commonly used vaccines target types16 and 18 for Cervarix® or types, 6, 11, 16, and 18 for Gardasil®, which is the vaccine commonly used in Australia. Strains 16 and 18 are the most common types linked to cervical cancer, while types 6 and 11 are linked to genital warts.

The vaccine has also been shown to reduce infection with some cancer-associated HPV types that are closely related to those in the vaccines types we vaccinate against.

Q4: How effective is the HPV vaccine?

A4: The vaccine provides immunity for HPV types 16/18 in 95% of people who take the recommended course of doses. The current evidence does not show a reduction in protection (as measured by immunoreactivity) over time.

Q5: Is the vaccine safe?

A5: Adverse events have been reported following HPV vaccination, but the overwhelming majority of these reactions are minor and largely local injection site reactions (e.g. redness, swelling, pain at injection site). These reactions do include other minor self-limiting reactions such as syncope (fainting episodes), headache, and nausea. In addition to our paper, the CDC has a useful summary of minor to moderate reactions of short duration for both types of HPV vaccines and other vaccines. These are consistent with other vaccinations.

Matters of general vaccine safety have been previously covered in-depth in the Australian Academy of Science’s booklet, The Science of Immunisation: questions and answers, and the paper Vaccine Components and Constituents: Responding to Consumer Concerns.

Q6: What about reported deaths from the HPV vaccine?

A6: In 2009, a study investigated 32 deaths attributed to Gardasil® reported by the public on VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System). Of the 32 deaths, there was not enough information to identify the person and investigate the cause of death in 12 cases. The cause of the remaining 20 deaths were: 2 due to diabetes, 3 due to pulmonary embolism, 6 were cardiac-related, 2 were idiopathic seizure disorders, 4 were unexplained, 1 was due to juvenile amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, 1 case of meningoencephalitis (inflammation of the brain and surrounding membrane), and the final death was related to prescription drug abuse. The authors concluded that statistically these results were not significantly different from what you would expect from a similar sized un-vaccinated population.

For references and more details please refer to the paper. I appreciate the work of my co-authors on both the paper itself and this blog.

Baby’s first scientific paradigm.

Well, she’s not a baby any more (that role is now filled by Anna-Rose), rather Chloe’s a little girl, aged just a little over 3 now, with an inquisitive mind. She likes trains and planes and science and that’s all rather good by me. Where she gets her taste in jazz from I’ve no idea. Recently, I’ve been reading her See Inside Space (a lift-the-flap book on all things space) to her, and for my own reading, Kuhn’s classic The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It struck me that here I am giving her her first scientific paradigms: that the universe is composed of discrete matter (atoms, made of subatomic particles, made of quarks & etc.), that stars are “born” and “die”, that nothing can get out of a black hole (I haven’t complicated that picture by introducing Hawking radiation just yet), that galaxies are composed of stars, that we can observe these using devices—telescopes—constructed with other paradigms—EM radiation—in mind. That I’m also teaching her to recognise things: our position in the milky way, what interstellar dust and gas clouds look like, that black holes can be identified by their accretion disks. And I’m astounded at her ability to recognise/recall all of the above quite precisely!

The scary thing is that I could tell her Biblical/other mythological accounts of creation and she’d believe them just as much. She knows about evidence though; I teach her the evidence we have for the big bang, and she’s aware, from the history of theories and knowledge page, featuring famous astronomers & physicists, that scientific knowledge is updated: “Daddy, what did he discover?”. As for the moon being made of rocks (a fact she enjoyed repeated to me today without any precursor discussion on space) vs. cheese, she’s Ok with that because she can see the moon looks more like a big rock. I suspect there’s a connection here to thinking about views on climate change: people get set in both their ways of living as well as their set of paradigms as they age, and it grows harder to counter those. Much easier in children to build up a set of paradigms than to change one “brick” in a paradigm “wall” later. How to wind back the clock / replace a large set of paradigms (world-view)? Perhaps there are some lessons in The Young Atheist’s Handbook by Alom Shaha (next on my reading list).