A Halifax-based chiropractor is being investigated by her regulatory authority for her staunch anti-vaccination views.
Dr. Dena Churchill owns and operates Oxford Chiropractic Inc. She also markets herself as an author and public speaker, writes a blog called DrSexyMom, and runs a Facebook page billing herself as "Innovator in Women's Health and Wellness."
It's on that page, as well as her personal one, where Churchill has posted extensive material perpetuating unfounded claims about vaccinations and the negative effects they can have on people's health, including the disproved theory linking vaccinations with autism.
John Sutherland, executive director of the Nova Scotia College of Chiropractors, confirmed to CBC News the college's registrar filed a complaint last week against Churchill.
After being advised of the complaint, Churchill has 10 business days to respond before a committee reviews the case to determine next steps, which range from the ability to levy a fine to suspending a licence. The matter could also be referred to a hearing committee, said Sutherland, where there are the same statutory rules as a Nova Scotia court.
Churchill, who owns and operates Oxford Chiropractic Inc., markets herself as an author and public speaker. (Facebook)
Vaccination is not in the chiropractic scope of practice. The college even goes as far as posting a notice on its website, saying it "recognizes that vaccination and immunization are established public health practices in the prevention of infectious diseases."
It goes on to note "the appropriate sources for patient consultation and education regarding vaccination and immunization are public health authorities and health professionals with the scope of practice that includes vaccination."
The purpose of the statement, Sutherland said, is to give "guidance to the members."
"We take that guidance seriously, and if need be we're prepared to use our discipline process to seek compliance with the college policy," he said.
This message, posted on the Nova Scotia College of Chiropractors website, reflects the Canadian Chiropractic Association's guidance on vaccines. (Nova Scotia College of Chiropractors)
Churchill did not respond to interview requests, however there can be no disputing her views on vaccines.
In one video she has posted online, she becomes particularly emotional as she rails against them, suggesting — incorrectly — that people are given vaccines that haven't been tested. She recounts a meeting with an unnamed family doctor whom she says couldn't dispel her views on vaccines, as well as repeating several debunked conspiracy theories.
"Why can [the government] do this? It's because we're drinking too much fluoridated water and we can't think for ourselves," Churchill says in one video. "Why wouldn't they tell you that these vaccines are harmful?"
She also alleges the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the U.S. has a financial bias related to vaccines. It is the only video she has posted online where Churchill distances herself from her profession, saying she's not representing chiropractors.
Dr. Scott Halperin is the director of the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology and a professor of pediatrics, microbiology and immunology at Dalhousie University. (CBC)
Dr. Scott Halperin, director of the Canadian Centre for Vaccinology and a professor of pediatrics, microbiology and immunology at Dalhousie University, said no one will be able to change the minds of the very small population of committed anti-vaccination people.
"We would be wasting our time to try."
Halperin said the starting point for doctors is "do no harm," so a stringent regulatory process is followed any time a vaccine is being developed or used. It takes about 10 years for a vaccine to be developed and ultimately approved, he said.
"The first thing we want to make sure is that we don't hurt anybody by using the vaccine. So we want to make sure it's safe and is it effective."
Vaccines don't cause cancer
One of the claims Churchill makes in a video is that vaccines cause cancer. The opposite is true, said Halperin.
"There are some vaccines that prevent cancer," he said, pointing to the HPV vaccine that was developed to prevent cervical cancer and the hepatitis B vaccine, which all children in Nova Scotia get in Grade 4.
"Hepatitis B virus is one of the primary causes of liver cancer, and since we've had universal hepatitis vaccination the rates of liver cancer have dropped dramatically."
Anti-vaccine claims have had negative effects on public health in recent years. "Vaccine refusal" has been linked to the resurgence of some diseases. Recent outbreaks of measles is one example.
Vaccinations are not the only thing Churchill has strong views on that also appear to fall outside her scope of practice. Her Facebook pages include extensive video reviews of The Truth About Cancer, a series that makes conspiratorial claims about cancer and related research.
In her own videos, Churchill, who always refers to herself as "doctor," makes claims such as that essential oils can suppress tumours, wearing a bra makes a person more susceptible to cancer than smoking, and coffee enemas have healing powers for cancer patients.
Jennette Boudreau, an assistant professor in Dalhousie's departments of pathology and immunology, said there is no scientific evidence or research to support any of those theories.
Jennette Boudreau is an assistant professor in Dalhousie’s departments of immunology and microbiology, and pathology. (CBC)
At the root of any new treatment is an idea, said Boudreau. But those ideas go through years of research, stringent testing and peer review before they might ever become a part of daily treatment. Things get difficult, said Boudreau, when people become so married to an idea they're unable to accept when it's disproved.
Promoting unproven views can be extremely dangerous, she said.
"We've unfortunately seen cases where individuals have elected to go after an alternative therapy — foregoing chemo, radiation, surgery, immunotherapy. All the while their cancer continues to grow and their disease goes from being something that was very treatable to something that is end stage and palliative because they didn't get treated quickly enough."
The chiropractor college's advertising guidelines prevent members from making claims about things "that can't be substantiated," said Sutherland.
The right information sources
In the case of vaccinations and cancer therapies, Boudreau and Halperin both say there are immensely high and rigid standards a treatment must meet before regulators at Health Canada will ultimately approve something for use as standard of care.
In one video, Churchill says people cannot trust medical professionals and must learn to heal themselves. She is heavily critical of public health agencies.
Halperin and Boudreau both say there is a wealth of information people can consult if they have questions or are uncertain about a type of treatment. But both researchers also stress the importance of consulting sites with information that is peer reviewed and thoroughly scrutinized.
"I can categorically say that [when] people say, 'You can't trust what's on a public health website,' it's false," said Halperin. "People spend a lot of time in public health trying to make sure the information is accurate, up to date and understandable."
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