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U of T investigates instructor over anti-vaccine course materials

The U of T investigation comes after The Globe and Mail reported that Beth Landau-Halpern, a homeopath employed as an instructor at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, promotes unscientific views about vaccine safety online.

J.P. Moczulski/The Globe and Mail

The University of Toronto has launched an investigation to determine whether an instructor is presenting inaccurate, biased information about vaccines and other health-related issues to students.

The Canadian Alliance to Support Immunization, a coalition of doctors and public health experts from across Canada, sent a letter to university president Meric Gertler this week urging him to scrutinize the alternative health course taught by homeopath Beth Landau-Halpern, which includes a video interview with disgraced anti-vaccine researcher Andrew Wakefield as required viewing. And on Tuesday, Howard Hu and Trevor Young, the deans of U of T's Dalla Lana School of Public Health and its faculty of medicine, wrote an open letter stating that vaccine hesitancy and refusal is contributing to a rise in outbreaks of preventable diseases.

"The problem is that despite all the clinical evidence and decades of advances in human health, many people continue to rely on anecdotal evidence and inaccurate information to make their decisions around vaccinations. For some, a single, alarming story on social media is more compelling than the weight of scientific evidence compiled by the scientific community, which presents us educators with a new challenge," they wrote. The letter did not specifically address the current controversy.

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The U of T investigation comes after The Globe and Mail reported that Ms. Landau-Halpern, a homeopath employed as an instructor at the university's Scarborough campus, promotes unscientific views about vaccine safety online. Ms. Landau-Halpern, who is married to the dean of the Scarborough campus and was a keynote speaker at a university-sponsored conference last weekend on alternative health care, has since removed many of the vaccine-related posts from her website and disabled her Facebook and Twitter accounts.

In an e-mail statement on Tuesday, Sioban Nelson, vice-provost, academic programs, said the university's vice-president of research and innovation, Vivek Goel, is working with the chair of the anthropology department, where Ms. Landau-Halpern works, and the curriculum committee to examine the academic rigour of her course.

The incident is sparking a debate over how far academic freedom goes when it comes to promoting unscientific information in a classroom.

Earlier this week, more than 40 physicians, professors and public-health experts co-signed a letter urging Dr. Gertler to scrutinize the quality of Ms. Landau-Halpern's course. They highlighted the upcoming reading list for a class on vaccination, which includes the video interview with Dr. Wakefield and links to a website that incorrectly states vaccines are linked to autism. The reading list does not include material on the benefits of vaccination.

Requests to Ms. Landau-Halpern for comment went unanswered.

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