Published February 29, 2016
The aim of scientific research is to improve medical knowledge and find better ways to treat disease. As part of...
— William Wilberforce
In the spring and summer of 2015, a course offered by the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto in Scarborough, Canada titled “Alternative Health: Practice and Theory” sparked an outcry among students attending the University’s medical school.1 The medical students alleged that the instructor, Professor Beth Landau-Halpern (photo left-hand column), a homeopath and alternative health instructor, was inappropriately promoting anti-vaccine perspectives in one section of the course content.2
Critics of the course claimed that students taking Landau-Halpern’s course were required to viewi a video interview with physician Dr. Andrew Wakefield who, along with Prof. John Walker Smith, Dr. Simon Burch, and 10 co-authors published a clinical observation study in 1998 in the British medical journal The Lancet. The study consisted of a series of 12 case reports of children who had received the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine and later developed symptoms of gastrointestinal dysfunction, developmental delays, and autism.
The paper, which concluded that there was sufficient evidence about the possible link between the MMR vaccine and autism to merit further research, was subsequently retracted by The Lancet after fraud allegations that the study was not appropriately conducted. The controversy over the paper by Wakefield and his colleagues led to a popularized view that the potential association between MMR and autism has been definitely debunked—one obviously adopted by critics of Landau-Halpern’s course.3 Some critics raised concerns about the fact that Landau-Halpern is not a “scientist,” and medical students complained that the course material was not approved by the Faculty of Medicine and lacked scientific validity.4
In response to the outcry, Landau-Halpern stated that the course material was intended to allow students who are in their final year of study to think critically and approach controversial topics without premature bias. She explains that the readings and videos were purposefully chosen since the students enrolled in the class have had the opportunity to understand the other side of the vaccine debate in previous courses.2 She went on to further say that she believes that vaccines are “effective biomedical interventions that need to be used in a nuanced and individualized manner.2
In responding to questions from the Toronto Star newspaper about the case, Landau-Halpern said she removed the vaccination debate section from the course outline…
Because of the volatility of the vaccine issue and the current (measles) outbreak, this particular controversy is not a part of my course any longer.2
As a result of protests from medical school students, an investigation into the course was conducted to determine if the course content was academically “unbalanced.”4 Dr. Vivek Goel, President and CEO of Public Health Ontario, and University of Toronto’s Vice-President of Research and Innovation concluded the instructor’s approach to the course was not unbalanced and did not raise any particular concerns.1 Goel’s conclusion was based on the premise that by the time students enrolled in the fourth-year elective course, they have had three years of exposure to scientific courses that focused primarily on scientific methodology.1 However, the university did state that the course will no longer be offered in the upcoming academic year.1
Some students have argued that since the course was offered through the Department of Anthropology and not through the Faculty of Medicine, it did not need to include scientific evidence.4 However, medical student critics who wrote the complaint to the University argued:
The very notion that anti-vaccination views could be considered a part of a ‘balanced approach’ to teaching about the science of vaccines is completely false. The overwhelming scientific consensus, supported by mountains of robust evidence, concludes that vaccines are safe, effective and save lives. Suggesting that anti-vaccine views are a part of a balanced approach to the science is to perpetuate a manufactured controversy.4
In response to the complaint, Landau-Halpern stated:
The assertion that science is objective and impartial is erroneous. The results of scientific studies are not watertight, and the same results can be used to prove/disprove almost anything, depending on the point of view of the investigator.4
This case highlights several key issues central to the vaccine debate:
1. What is at risk here is the freedom of thought and speech. It demonstrates the diminishing opportunity to create dialogue from an alternative perspective.
2. Merely questioning the effectiveness of vaccines leads to questioners being labeled as “anti-vaccine” by default.
3. Stakeholders committed to defending the pharmaceutical-based medical model for healing are creating obstacles to independent thought and stimulating conversation even in academic settings where promoting intellectual diversity is a core value.
What happened to Professor Beth Landau-Halpern raises the broader question, “If Big Brother institutions such as organized medicine, Pharma, and the government are so certain about their answers to questions about vaccine safety and effectiveness, why are unconventional perspectives vilified rather than being intellectually debated?”
1 Stoetzer E. Student Outcry Over the University of Toronto Medical Course Prompts Changes. USA Today July 23, 2015.
2 Krishnan M. U of T reviewing course amid outcry over ‘anti-vaccine’ teacher. Toronto Star Mar. 3, 2015.
3 Branswell H. University Of Toronto Report Concludes Anti-Vaccine Instruction Did Not Warrant Concern. The Huffington Post Canada July 6, 2015.
4 Haq M. Anti-vax course vexes students. The Varsity July 28, 2015.