David Brown's Fools in the Courts of Prester John: AoA Goes to Australia

Fools in the Courts of Prester John: AoA Goes to Australia

By David N. Brown

This is a PUBLIC DOMAIN document (dated 11/01/09). It may be copied, forwarded, cited,

circulated or posted elsewhere. The author requests only that it not be altered from its current


On October 27, while I was concentrating on writing a fictional story in Australia, AoA and specifically David Burd published their own fictional work about Australia, unfortunately under the pretense of fact. Titled “Without Vaccine, Australia Shrugs Off Swine Flu”, this is quite possibly the most blatant piece of fraudulent disinformation I have encountered from AoA. I find it more interesting as another
possible example of an “urban legend” associated with vaccination.

A consideration which should automatically raise a folklorist's feelers is that it represents a report of events geographically and culturally far removed from the reporter. Folklorists have referred to this  type of tale as “exoteric” lore, meaning that it is told by one group about another. Unsurprisingly, such lore often bears little or no resemblance to the subject group's actual beliefs, practices and selfperception.

Egregious examples crop up even when mutual isolation is minimal. Jews were demonized by their Christian neighbors as cannibals who drank human blood, even though documents accepted as Scripture by both communities clearly forbade drinking even animal blood. (Still more preposterous was a Renaissance tale that Jews had horns!) Far more recently, rumors, media flaps and actual legal actions have claimed that thousands of murders are committed by Satanists as human sacrifices, despite not only an absence of evidence of such a practice but unequivocal statements from leading self-identified Satanists that they do not actually believe in Satan's literal existence, and so presumably have no reason to commit crimes to satisfy Him. The potential for grotesque disinformation is obviously even greater when the source and the subject are separated by thousands of miles.

Looked at in these terms, AoA does not disappoint. What they report, compared to actual information from Australia, is like a dispatch from an alternate universe. Compare just the opening statements by Burd with those from a wikipedia entry on the same subject.

AoA: “With no vaccine available for H1N1 flu, Australia recently ended its 2009 `Flu Season' (their Winter in our Summer), with 186 flu-associated fatalities of 36,991 Aussies confirmed having H1N1. “

wiki: “As of 21 October 2009, Australia has 36,991 confirmed cases of H1N1 Influenza 09, and 186 confirmed deaths due to the disease. The actual numbers are much larger, as only serious cases are being tested and treated. Suspected cases have not been reported by the Department of Health and Ageing since 18 May 2009 because they are changing too quickly to report.”

This means that AoA has managed to repeat accurate figures but grossly misinterpret their significance.

The cases and deaths which have been reported, in the words of the Australians who produced them, are minimum figures. I would add that it is not improbable that deaths in particular have been intentionally underreported. This practice is ubiquitously documented in the military: By failing to report casualties, commanders turn supplies intended for dead soldiers into a reserve for the rest to use.

There is no reason to doubt that this occurs to some extent in hospitals. (Several episodes of Scrubs involve such a scenario, which I suspect is based on anecdotes from the show's medical consultants. )

Given that the Australian government is currently rationing its reserve of anti-viral drugs to those with “more than mild symptoms or a high risk of dying “ (wiki again!), medical professionals undoubtedly have an unusually strong incentive to use underreporting to create personal stockpiles.

Contradictions of verifiable reality continue to pile up with regard to further details and statements:

AoA: “(Australia has) no vaccine available for H1N1 flu...”

wiki: “The first one litre batch of vaccine was announced to be ready on 29 June 2009 by the
University of Queensland, but would not be available for use until it was registered as safe with the regulatory authority. “

AoA: “A logical review of these results strongly suggests next year Australia should initiate a `flu vaccination holiday', promote vitamin D supplements, long known to be effective for preventing Wintertime flu disease, and then compare the outcomes ”

wiki: “A large scale immunization effort against swine flu started on Monday 28 September 2009.”

AoA: “In light of Australia clearly showing the pussycat nature of H1N1, can somebody explain why America's media willfully ignores the news from Australia?”

wiki: “Information accurate as of 1200 EST on 21 October 2009 ...” (Mentioned as an indication that Australian authorities are still collecting new reports. Indeed, an official report dated 26 October raised
the number of cases to 37,039, but, perhaps suspiciously, reported no new deaths.)

All this may simply be lead-in for the following passage: “However, despite the derelict media, I would think U.S. Health Generals would certainly be up on Flu news from Down Under, and certainly from
Canada right next door... Canadian front page news on flu vaccinations has transfixed Canada health authorities, prompting official suspension of regular flu vaccination programs until further notice. This
comes from a sweeping study of Canada by research Doctors Danuta Skowronski of the British Columbia Centre of Disease Control and Gaston De Serres of Laval University in Quebec concluding Canadians receiving flu vaccinations have twice the risk of coming down with the flu, compared to those who do not take the shot... (On Oct. 4) U.S. doctors offered the opinion that the Canadian doctors' flu vaccination study was certainly wrong and must have used flawed study parameters, though (they)
admittedly could not identify anything specific.”

As best I can figure, the study Burd refers to is (or was as of ca. Oct. 1) unpublished. A single, unpublished study- the “anti-vaxers'” favorite resource! (Except, it comes from a credentialed and wellrespected authority.) This is what Michael Smith (a medical journalist living in Canada) had to say about it in a post for Medpage: “The Canadian data appear to suggest that people who had been vaccinated against last year's seasonal flu were about twice as likely as others to catch the pandemic strain when it appeared this spring. But the CDC said U.S. data do not show a similar risk...(C)oauthor Danuta Skowronski, MD, of the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, told the Canadian Press she wanted to get expert scrutiny from the peer-review system... Skowronski said the findings could be real, due to chance, or arise from some sort of bias or confounding factor.

Meanwhile, at least one Canadian province is changing its flu vaccination strategy in the wake of the report. Arlene King, MD, the chief medical officer of health for Ontario, said people over 65 -- those at
least risk for the pandemic flu strain -- will be offered (only?) the seasonal flu vaccine as usual in October. ”

In summary:

1. The study is not about a possible risk of the H1N1 vaccine(s), as one might easily suppose from Burd's remarks.

2. The events whose relationship is studied- receiving a “seasonal flu” vaccine and being infected with H1N1- occurred one year apart.

3. Far from being unable to “identify anything specific” wrong with the study, US authorities had already proved that its results were at best irreproducible with available US data.

4. The study's own authors said their data was not conclusive.

5. There was not an “official suspension of regular flu vaccination programs” in Canada, only a decision by authorities of one province of Canada to give some people one vaccine instead of two.

So, what are we to make of this? It is easy to reverse Burd's rhetorical gambit on himself: It would be understandable if he were not “up on Flu news from Down Under”, but entirely incredible that he would be ignorant of events in “Canada right next door” (especially since he has written for Canadian blogs!). It is thus quite difficult to regard his story to AoA as anything but a purposeful hoax. But I see room for a backhanded benefit of a doubt: that his account is mainly an “urban legend”.

It can be said, at the first, that the lack of mutual understanding between Canada and the US is a rather notorious problem. It can be added that the Canadians undoubtedly have their own “urban legends”,which might be accepted even more credulously outside Canada. The clearly false claim that Canada has suspended flu vaccination can be accounted for, in these terms, as a Canadian counterpart to “government legends” told in the US about our own government. A frequent theme in such legends is changes in government benefits, as in the “Veterans' insurance dividend”, described by Harold Jan Brunvand as “more like a hoax or a rumor than a true legend”. Such tales serve to create variously hope, panic or outrage among the audience. In the present case, a legend to the effect that the government has or soon will withdraw a vaccine would predictably be greeted with premature celebration among vaccine critics and unwarranted alarm among those concerned with being immunized against a disease.

On a more general level, I see parallels to two Medieval legends. One, quite obvious, is the belief that Jews did not suffer the bubonic plague, which at the time served to fuel violence against Jews as the
supposed source of the plague. Burd's indefensible contention that Australia is somehow unaffected by H1N1 fits the same archetypal mold. By using such a doubtful claim to argue against vaccination and
for nutrition (plus sanitation, alternative medicine, etc.) as a sufficient alternative, Burd and other vaccine critics also repeat a more subtle path of error in scholarship about the plague. It has been
seriously contended that Jews may in fact have had lower mortality in the plagues (until the Christians killed them, of course) because they practiced better hygiene and sanitation. But, one would be hardpressed
to prove the theory from contemporary Jewish records, which show losses to the plague to be horrific by any standard. Likewise, even if Australia can be proved less affected by H1N1 (I am not prepared to comment on that one way or the other), no one in his right mind would claim that country's experience as proof of “ the pussycat nature of H1N1”.

The other legend is that of King Prester John, the fabled king of an equally fabled Christian kingdom somewhere in Asia. (This was a source in Europe of hope in the wars with the Turks and Arabs, and a cause for rude surprise when the Mongols came through.) This myth represents a notable historical example of the utopian ideal, which at that time could still be imagined to be fulfilled in some real but far-off land. It also shows a human tendency, when trying to imagine the foreign and unfamiliar, to set what is pictured all too firmly in the terms of one's own culture and ideals. That, I have no doubt, is what Burd and AoA really seek in Australia: a place where their own idea of good health policy is not only taken seriously but proved in practice. But, like countless far more eloquent and noble visions of utopia before it, at close approach it either vanishes or turns very ugly indeed.

David N. Brown is a semipro author, diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome as an adult. Previous works include the novels The Worlds of Naughtenny Moore, Walking Dead and Aliens Vs Exotroopers, and the nonfiction ebook The Urban Legend of Vaccine-Caused Autism. This and other articles related to autism are available free of charge at evilpossum.weebly.com.


KWombles said...

I have tried repeatedly to fix the formatting, to no avail. If it's too annoying, please go to David's site to download the pdf file.

Corina Becker said...

Have you tried inputting it in html editing, and then switched to compose mode? That's what I do when formatting is being annoying.

Anyhow. As a Canadian, I have to say that I have yet to hear that any of our vaccine schedules have been suspended. In Ontario, we have a different schedule than usual, with people aged 65+ and high risk people getting the seasonal flu shot in October, then we were supposed to get H1N1 vaccine now in November (it was given out a whole week early, currently targeting, again, high risk people), and then in late November/December/January, the rest of the population gets the seasonal flu.
It was scheduled this way to reach the high risk population first in order to minimize the death rate.

However, given the string of deaths due to H1N1, of perfectly healthy children, there's been a big rush to the vaccine clinics. In my city, we have already reached the initial target of 10% within 6 days of the clinics opening. Luckily, they've started to screen people as they line up, so the lines are shorter.

KWombles said...

Thanks, Corina,

It's somewhat better now, I guess, and it's clean in both editing windows but still glitching some.

That's good news on the 10% vaccinated. Still no H1N1 vaccine in the city I live in.

davidbrown said...

Formatting looks okay: Only one "orphan" line.
Corina: Interesting to hear a Canadian perspective. Something you might want to watch for is whether there's local rumors about vaccines being withdrawn, especially in local subcultures.

Corina Becker said...

Kim: 10% of either the current target population or the population in general, I can't remember. And I believe that nearly 50% of the health care workers have been vaccinated. This is a voluntary vaccination, provided free by the Ministry of Health, through each office of Public Health, as are most vaccines. Up here, price isn't exactly a reason NOT to get a vaccine. :D

David: It's kind of hard for me to watch out for rumours. I'm kinda a shut-in. I rarely socialize with the public and/or leave the house.

However, if the newspapers are anything to go by, around here, they're trying to step up production. The only temporary suspension that occurs is when we run out of vaccines, but that only lasts until the next batch gets shipped out of Quebec.

And part of the high risk population includes, not only people with chronic conditions, health care workers and such, but firefighters, people who work with swine and poultry, and people who live in rural areas, including the aboriginal populations.

davidbrown said...

Aboriginal=Indian? If so, interesting. Australia also reports that Aborigines have a high infection rate, representing 12% of cases as I understand it. All too likely, it's a "standard of living" issue.

Corina Becker said...

David: Up here, we tend to refer to Indians as the people from India. But yes, Aboriginals, Native Canadians, the different ways to say "the people who were living here before us".
Here, I think it's also a "standard of living" issue in general, and trying to do what can be done (whether effective or not) to change that.

But yeah, it's been noted from the onset of H1N1 that Native Canadians are part of the high risk population, whether because of "standard of living" and/or the fact that the, er, for lack of a better word cause I'm failing at word retrieval today, reserves, are very rural.