25 Jun 2019

Teacher accused of misinformation over vaccines and autism

9:04 am on 25 June 2019

An Auckland high school teacher has been accused of spreading misinformation about vaccines during a year 12 English class.

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Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

A support staffer was working with an autistic student at Takapuna Grammar School when she says she heard the teacher tell the class there was evidence that vaccines cause autism.

The incident is alleged to have happened during a Level 2 English class at Takapuna Grammar School on Friday, 14 June.

A support staffer, who was in the classroom but did not want to be named, said students were working on research projects relating to a range of topics - some looked at smoking, others were focused on vaccines.

The class was busy with their assignments when the teacher asked one student to consider a different viewpoint on vaccinations.

"She was like 'well, you know, there are pretty valid reasons why people are not liking the idea of vaccinations, there's been evidence to show that vaccines can cause autism'."

The support staffer said she jumped in at that point to tell the teacher that information was inaccurate, explaining that a study from the 1990s linking vaccines to autism had been totally discredited.

The teacher did not stop there, however, and went on to explain there were other reasons vaccines could be harmful and people may not want to vaccinate.

"So I'm not totally sure on her position, as an anti-vaxxer or not, but I do know that what was being said was a little unnerving."

The support staffer said it was concerning for her to see misinformation being spread to students at Takapuna, which has more than 1600 students, especially during a measles outbreak in Auckland and Northland.

In a statement, Takapuna Grammar School said the class was focused on consideration of different perspectives.

"At present, the Level 2 English Literacy class are carrying out research for the internal standard "91105 Use information literacy skills to form developed conclusions". This involves students researching an issue that is the focus of an editorial or column, relating findings back to the column and drawing conclusions.

"The title of this assessment is 'Dissenting Voices'. A student selected the anti-vax movement as their area of inquiry and the teacher explained the different perspectives that could be taken into account, one being the now-discredited scientific evidence produced in 1998.

"This was not presented as evidence of the connection, but was referred to as one of the pieces of information he could consider that has contributed to the debate."

The support staffer said that was not what she observed.

"She was giving this information to the student as if it was accurate and she didn't even realise she was giving the student misinformation about it until I told her."

The Ministry for Education said it encouraged anyone with concerns about what their child was being taught to speak with the child's teacher in the first instance and follow the school's complaints process.

Immunisation Advisory Centre director Dr Nikki Turner said it was vital that myths around vaccines be dispelled - and that people who were spreading information had their facts straight.

Dr Nikki Turner, Director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre at the University of Auckland, briefs the Health Select Committee

Immunisation Advisory Centre director Dr Nikki Turner says it is vital myths about vaccines are dispelled. Photo: VNP / Phil Smith

"We've got overwhelming scientific evidence and a large amount of studies that do not show a link between the vaccine and autism.

"The problem we have is that myths never die - this was a myth that was created back in the 1990s and it appears to have become embedded in everybody's minds and it's very hard to shift a myth."

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