In 2015 the anti-vaccination movement got something it had long wanted: the awarding of a PhD for a thesis endorsing many of its claims. The decision by the University of Wollongong, Australia to grant the doctorate was widely criticized, but defenders of the decision claimed opponents had not read the thesis in full and were relying on incomplete information. Now however, a detailed rebuttal has been published in the journal Vaccine, demonstrating the thesis is every bit as flawed as critics said.
The University of Wollongong may not be an internationally renowned institution, but it is rated in the world's top 250 universities in at least one global ranking, and led one of the most important discoveries of this century. This was, therefore, not an example of a made up university that awards pseudo-degrees to anyone willing to pay them.
With more than 20,000 downloads of the thesis, and anti-vaccination campaigners referring to it frequently, the decision to make the award could have influenced vaccination rates, despite the fact the award was from the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, rather than science or medicine. The supervisor justified the faculty's involvement because the thesis claimed to be about institutional barriers to unbiased research and their effect on policymaking.
“Our current research with non-vaccinating parents suggests that some are considering the thesis in their decision-making, and health care providers who may be questioned about it by vaccine-hesitant parents have no such resource to aid their discussions,” the authors of the response, titled Phd Thesis Opposing Immunisation: Failure Of Academic Rigour With Real-World Consequences, and led by the University of Sydney's Dr Kerrie Wiley, wrote.
Wiley and co-authors conclude the thesis shows "bias in selecting the literature cited and sometimes outright misrepresentation of facts". They argue it relies heavily on the claim infant mortality was falling prior to the widespread introduction of most vaccines. The decline was caused by improvements in hygiene and diet, they say, and would have continued without the introduction of vaccination.
Wiley readily acknowledges vaccines are not the only factor in the fifty-fold decrease in infant mortality in the developed world over the last century. However, they certainly played a major part.
The thesis looks only at overall infant mortality over time, failing to break it down by causes. In fact, despite progress in many other areas, it was only when vaccines were introduced that diseases like polio and measles were brought under control – in the latter case only to rise again thanks to anti-vaxxers' efforts. Antibiotics account for much of the 20th century's improvements in life-expectancy, but are useless against viral diseases.
Other arguments central to the thesis include claims certain research has not actually been done, just because various Australian government websites on vaccination don't cite it. As Wiley points out, such research is real, abundant, and easily accessible by university graduate students.
Sadly, this thesis was not University of Wollongong's humanities department's first venture outside their field of expertise, with potentially disastrous consequences. Their web site hosts a paper, blaming HIV on the polio vaccine, a theory that has been thoroughly disproved in at least three ways.