Vaccine Safety Advocate

It is interesting that hundreds of researchers and scientists work every day to monitor and study the safety of our vaccine program to ensure that it is safe, but “vaccine safety advocate” gets used, without irony, by anti-vaccine activists in order to obscure their true purpose of frightening parents away from vaccines by falsely connecting them to autism.

Words matter, and they matter especially in journalism. Casting people who form coalitions in order to slow the uptake of vaccines and promote misinformation about them as anything other than anti-vaccine is playing into their own public relations and feeding the anti-vaccine delusion.

So why does the Star Tribune keep changing articles and headlines to accommodate the public relations of Minnesota’s wealthiest and most politically connected anti-vaxxer?

On the heels of the Disneyland measles outbreak, Strib reporter wrote this terrible and falsely balanced article discussing how anti-vaccine activists were on the defense (since they were, you know, bringing back measles). Originally, the article began:

Jennifer Larson’s conversion to anti-vaccine started after her infant son got his measles shot in October 2001. Within minutes, she said, he passed out, within hours he stopped making eye contact, within weeks he lost a sense of touch and within months he was found to have severe autism.

The first line, that she was converted to anti-vaccine, is accurate. That the vaccine caused her child’s autism is, of course, refuted by science. But to the point: Jennifer Larson is anti-vaccine. It is her anti-vaccine stance that has led her to bring to Minnesota hearings doctors like Dr. Toni Bark, who is also anti-vaccine and who has a whole movie about the pretend dangers of vaccines. The bill they were testifying against would not have mandated vaccines; it simply would have required parents speak to a doctor before opting their children out of vaccines. Who is against people talking to their doctors about the risks of opting out of vaccines? People who are anti-vaccine.

But Jeremy Olson (or his editors) changed that first line of that awful article so that it read: “Jennifer Larson’s conversion to vaccine skeptic started after her infant son got his measles shot in October 2001″ (emphasis mine). Jennifer Larson, no doubt, did not like being called anti-vaccine because who wants to be against vaccines? Not someone who spreads misinformation about vaccines or keeps parents who have hesitation about them from their doctors. Oh wait.

In any case, the Star Tribune slipped up and called her anti-vaccine again, to report that she was planning, along with her anti-vaccine political party, a local fundraiser for anti-vaccine Libertarian presidential almost-candidate Rand Paul. The article was originally titled, “Head of anti-vaccination group to host Rand Paul fundraiser.” As far as headlines go, it was completely fair. Yet, months later, the headline has changed, and a correction now accompanies the article:

An earlier headline and photo caption with this article did not identify the Canary Party and its president, Jennifer Larson, correctly. Neither she nor the group oppose all vaccinations. Rather, they are raising questions about vaccine safety and federal vaccine research.

Oh really? She’s raising questions about vaccine safety? I know she has contributed tens of thousands of dollars to politicians in hopes of getting anti-vaccine misinformation about autism into the congressional record, but has she ever funded research about vaccine safety since she is so concerned about the federal research being done? (And can someone please point out how ridiculous it is to be concerned about “federal vaccine research” when vaccines are researched by governments and universities and non-profits and, yes, corporations across the globe, in lots of countries with lots of government structures?)

But the Star Tribune knows all this. I know they do because I have told them. So the real question remains: why do they keep capitulating to the absurd and inaccurate request by one anti-vaccine activists to be labeled as a “vaccine safety advocate.” Vaccine safety advocates do exist. They are the reason we have safe vaccines that prevent us from getting polio and diphtheria. They aren’t the lone voices repeating snippets of fraudulent, retracted studies.

Vaccination Stories Aren’t Easy (But You Can Still Get Them Right)

As his first year of college was just beginning, South Dakota student Beau Keeter contracted bacterial meningitis and died. The story was covered in papers across the country because the sudden loss of a young life is a tragedy. But we know what happens when the media covers a story about a vaccine-preventable disease.

It seems, though, that editors aren’t fully aware of what the potential blowback when they cover vaccine-related stories. And the editors of South Dakota’s Daily Republic appear to be in that state right now.

Last week, they published an editorial claiming “Vaccination stories aren’t easy.” That’s true, especially since immunology and infectious diseases are complex and the science is nuanced. But that’s not what they meant. They meant that people were displeased with their coverage.

Criticism came from those who advocate for vaccines and want the media to cover the topic in a way that presents the truth rather than needlessly stokes fears. The editors write:

Jim Keeter, the father of 17-year-old Beau Keeter, questioned the effectiveness of the vaccination. That’s when some of our readers became upset with our newspaper, saying that we didn’t do our part to ease the concern that there may be “a bad batch” of vaccinations, as Keeter suggested.

This criticism is fair. While it is understandable that a father would be heartbroken and want answers as to why his child died from a disease he was vaccinated against, floating easily disprovable theories is irresponsible journalism. It would have been easy for the Daily Republic to perform a simple 10-second Google search (as I did) about bad batches of vaccines and to find out that most vaccine recalls of batches or lots occur before the vaccines are sent out because the FDA detects irregularities in the vaccine. A more plausible theory, and one we would never expect a grieving father to answer to, is that his son was either a non-responder to the vaccine (since vaccines are not 100% effective). Another is that his son had a strain of bacterial meningitis not covered in the recommended vaccine, such as meningitis B. Either way, it is not a grieving father’s responsibility to fact check for the paper about why his son was vaccinated and still died.

For their part, however, the Daily Republic believes they did their due diligence in fact checking this point. They are wrong, but they do defend themselves by stating:

In our defense, we attempted to contact the state epidemiologist for the story, but he didn’t immediately return our calls. Then, as soon as we could, we followed up with that medical professional, who told us the meningococcal vaccine has an effectiveness of up to 95 percent within the first year. Within five years of the vaccination, the effectiveness hovers around 75 percent.

In this instance, we reported the opinion of a relevant source and went with what we had at the time. We felt it was a developing story that we could expand on later, and we did.

While attempting to contact the state epidemiologist seems like a reasonable course of action for a journalist, it isn’t. Pitting the theory of a grieving father against the facts as (theoretically since there was no reply) stated by an expert is just another example of false balance. So even if the epidemiologist would have responded, the disprovable theory about bad batches would still have appeared, and we would have been emotionally pulled to it because we all grieve with Jim Keeter for his son. We understand that we would all like there to be a better villain than bacteria for a senseless death.

The paper did, however, include information about the effectiveness of the meningococcal vaccine (assuming that Beau succumbed to serogroups A, C, W, or Y and not B or that he had received both vaccines). However, you will note that they consider this “the opinion of a relevant source.” Sorry, Daily Republic. That’s not how science works. The medical professional in question gave you the data borne through scientific study, not his personal musings on what he believes.

Furthermore, their assertion that they would continue to cover the developing story in the future is a massive failure of their responsibility to the public. Rather than partially informing and mostly misinforming the public, putting forth rumor and innuendo, the story would have been better framed in a thousand different ways.

It was unfair for the public to assume that Jim Keeter was an irresponsible parent who did not vaccinate his son. Reporting on the vaccination status of Beau was responsible. However, the public needs answers about how a vaccinated young adult can go away to college, still contract meningococcal disease, and die. They offered no answers in their reporting, and absent having those answers, they should not have suggested that a “bad batch” of vaccines was to blame.

Normally, I tell journalists that if they must report false information about vaccines (and here, they genuinely did not have to do so), that it is the journalists’ responsibility to correct that misinformation with their own words and not to present an opposing “opinion” from an expert. They are not reporting on the best location for a city park or a new parking law. Scientific reporting has facts. They should use them.

The Daily Republic (like many news outlets) remains defensive about their reporting on immunizations. They end their piece with:

We’ve also had a reader call each of the past few years following annual the flu shot clinic who has told us to stop running photos of kids who looked scared while getting shots. The reader tells us it discourages vaccinations.

Though, we want everyone to know, as we stated in an editorial earlier this year, we’re fully in favor of vaccinations. We know they’re extremely beneficial, as most medical professionals agree.

We know that getting vaccinations can be as simple as a small poke, but we also know vaccinations are a touchy subject of discussion.

Every year, someone tells them that they are stoking fears about vaccines, and it appears that every year they show children afraid of vaccines. But don’t worry. They are in favor of vaccines.

I have little sympathy for journalists who brush off the concerns of a public who are simply asking them to stick with the facts. The public deserves better.

Stealing from Dr. Bob

It’s hard not to be sarcastic about Dr. Bob Sears. His work promoting untested alternative vaccine schedules and stoking fears about vaccines (and autism and gluten and so forth) doesn’t seem to be enough for Time Magazine.

Dr. Sears writes: "DR PAN STOLE MY AWARD."
Dr. Sears writes: “DR PAN STOLE MY AWARD.”

Of course, Dr. Bob is joking. He’s always joking. That one time when he wrote a highly sexist Facebook post about how mothers and fathers parent differently?  “And to avoid offending both of you dads who read my blog, realize that this is a satirical poke at an unjust and inaccurate stereotype that has been unfairly thrust upon us men (insert emoticon that depicts me winking at moms everywhere).”

It’s always just satire–a joke with a winking emoticon. And so we can be assured that this, too, must be satire. Dr. Bob can’t really see himself as a hero of vaccination, can he?

After all, what is his record? According to Dr. Bob, he is pro-vaccine:

I give vaccines every single day in my office. I am pro-vaccine and understand that vaccines work and have reduced and eliminated many serious diseases. And that’s not just spouting a party line – I firmly believe that, and that’s why I give them in my office.

If the threshold for a vaccine hero is someone who does what every single other pediatrician and family physician in the country does, then all the doctors that give vaccines are heroes. And there is some merit to that, but it would be hard to feature them in Time. It would be an awfully thick magazine.

Of course, Dr. Bob doesn’t want to be remembered for preventing infectious diseases. He wants to be remembered for being nice to parents. He likes making parents like him (thus the sexist satire–oh wait). In a HuffPo article, Dr. Bob claims that he is one of the few doctors who respect parents by giving in to their fears and creating an alternative vaccine schedule for them. The need for doctors like him is apparently so great that he’s created a list of doctors who will eschew science in order to elicit warm fuzzy feelings from parents:

I’ve been creating a growing list of Vaccine Friendly Doctor’s on my website who WILL listen and respect these patient’s wishes and who will provide an alternative vaccine schedule for patients who want to vaccinate differently.

Earlier in that article, he claims that the AAP recommends creating alternative vaccine schedules for parents. This claim, of course, is untrue, as a recent statement about on-time immunization from the AAP shows: “There is no ‘alternative’ immunization schedule. Delaying vaccines only leaves a chil​d at risk of disease for a longer period of time; it does not make vaccinating safer.”

So actually, Dr. Bob isn’t doing what every pediatrician and family physician across the country is doing. Almost all of them (save those listed by Dr. Bob) are following a standard of care and AAP guidelines by giving those vaccines to their patients on time. And for patients who are nervous or hesitant, they are still recommending on-time immunization and doing their best to navigate parental fears while being aware of the needs of the child to be protected against disease. That last part, where we protect children, is lacking from Dr. Bob’s insistence that we respect parents’ fears.

Still, Dr. Bob bravely runs a Facebook page–wait, two Facebook pages, and writes his books and sells his supplements. Meanwhile, Dr. Pan, stealer of magazine hero awards, has not sold supplements. While being one of those doctors who follows the standard of care and the AAP guidelines, Dr. Pan, a state Senator, has also taken on legislation amidst outbreaks of measles to prevent future outbreaks and create healthier, disease-free schools.

Dr. Bob earns profits from his books and his supplements. Dr. Pan, meanwhile, received death threats from anti-vaxxers. He is facing efforts to recall him from office. Anti-vaxxers have portrayed him as Hitler. In fact, some of Dr. Bob’s supporters have gone full Godwin on Dr. Pan:

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On the other hand, Dr. Sears has used the California legislation to travel the state, speaking to parents about ways to circumvent the law. Dr. Gorski uncovered evidence suggesting Dr. Sears might be selling illegitimate medical exemptions for vaccines at these events:

At one point, a woman approached and told Dr. Bob that her pediatrician whom she otherwise liked would not issue an exemption, asking if he would see her for a one-time visit. His response? “I would be happy to provide that service.” He also confirmed that a one-time medical exemption visit is $180 and that he’d be willing to issue such an exemption and send the child back to his primary pediatrician.

In short: the legislation Dr. Pan crafted based on best medical practice earned him taunts, threats, and recall efforts. But this legislation that Dr. Bob opposed has earned him more earning potential.

While he might be joking, Dr. Bob’s assertion that Dr. Pan “stole” something from him has the kernel of truth that all satire (good or bad) has. Dr. Pan didn’t steal any prestige or accolades from Dr. Bob, but he did steal some publicity that would have been profitable to cash in on. Perhaps for that we can be glad.

Here’s the Good News Following the GOP Debate

Cringe-worthy. You could see the inner workings of their minds as they figured out how to straddle the different sides of the vaccine “debate” during the (actual) CNN debate. Some GOP Presidential candidates were trying to make everyone happy, like Ben Carson, who wants people to vaccinate and think some nebulous idea about spreading vaccines out is reasonable. I mean, if it makes parents feel better, who cares if they are leaving their children at risk for diseases longer than is safe?

Others have a core base that supports the idea of parents have freedom to do whatever they want to their children. And the last guy is a narcissist who isn’t used to his ideas being challenged and wouldn’t know a fact if it bit him in the rear.

These men who would rule the most powerful nation in the world and could easily unleash nuclear weapons also want to unleash measles on us. It’s easy to become disheartened if you stop at the debate.

But the debate isn’t the only thing that happened this week. Come Thursday morning, a torrent of backlash was unleashed on these candidates. They may not have expected it because anti-vaccine activists are loud and persistent and focused on only that one issue. They may have assumed that the debate was equally matched.

They were wrong. So many articles were written debunking these candidates and their misinformation that every word in this sentence has its own fabulous, lovely, pertinent, excellent hyperlink. The backlash was so great, I even had to add adjectives to my sentence. And I am guessing the backlash isn’t done.

The backlash is great enough that the campaigns are likely strategizing right now about how best to untangle themselves from their debate statements. If they want my opinion on how to do so, here’s my suggested language: “During the debate, I made statements about vaccines that were wrong. My wrongness was great and horrible, and I regret threatening public health with my wrongness. Children’s lives are too important to allow my wrongness to stand. Therefore, I retract my wrongness, and will gladly state now that vaccines do not cause autism and that parents should stick with the CDC schedule.” Not hard. Statements like this are made in marriages across the world.

Another presidential candidate has sniffed out this backlash. Bernie Sanders met with Rachel Maddow and stated:

I think the evidence is overwhelming that vaccines do not cause autism. It really is a little bit weird for Trump, who has no medical background, to be raising this issue. And obviously it is a concern because when somebody like that says it, thousands of people are going to hesitate to get their kids their shots, and bad things may happen.

I predict good news to come. Being pro-vaccine is now mainstream, and anti-vaccine statements are not allowed to stand. I predict a flurry of pro-vaccine statements by candidates and public figures  in the weeks to come.

But if you are listening carefully, pro-vaccine statements are embedded in our culture. References to the value and importance of vaccines are now part of casual allusion, such as the analogy made in the preview of Benicio Del Toro’s new film, shared on Jimmy Fallon’s show this week.

Despair not. Pro-vaccine voices are becoming more significant.
Although, if Donald Trump becomes President, you should despair. You should despair a lot.

Stop the Reduction of Science into Shouting Matches

When news becomes entertainment, it often devolves into shouting matches, and I don’t know about ratings or advertisers, but I suspect that these shouting matches are good for both. Bring together two people who staunchly support opposing positions, and–bam!–shouting match entertainment. But you know what they aren’t good for? Facts, and scientific facts in particular.

So inviting both Dr. Corey Hebert from Louisiana State University and Christina Hildebrand of A Voice for Choice on The Ed Show on MSNBC last month did absolutely nothing to further science. The discussion, which was supposed to center on Carly Fiorina’s statements about so-called parental choice and vaccines quickly devolved into hashtag-driven accusations about the horrors of vaccines and the impossible task of trying to refute these simplistic falsehoods by explaining complex science in mere seconds. Take a look:

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Of course, something that could have been a discussion about the balancing of rights when it comes to vaccine mandates became a discussion about vaccines and autism. When you invite an anti-vaccine activist onto your show, be aware that they only have two rabbits in their hat: vaccines cause autism (they don’t) and the CDC is evil (because evil).

The media is culpable, of course, because being salacious rather than sticking with the facts leads to outbreaks and perpetuates myths. And false balance is a real problem when it comes to science reporting, but especially journalism concerned about vaccines.

There is no clearer way to say it then this: vaccines do not cause autism, and there is no debate about concerning it. There are not two sides to vaccines and the science is not a political issue. The media need to keep this in mind when framing their stories.

One could make the case about the validity of discussing public policy and how best to require vaccines for school. However, that discussion is never going to happen meaningfully with an anti-vaccine activist because of those two rabbits I mentioned earlier. They only agree to media interviews so that they can perpetuate their long-disproven myths. They aren’t there for policy discussions. They are there to scare parents away from vaccines.

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And this is where everyone else in the world comes in. There are too many new journalists always coming into the industry who have immunization stories thrust at them even though they have no background in science reporting. False balance will always be an issue unless we do something.

I know how much we feel pulled to answer interview requests because we want to explain how safe and effective vaccines are to the public. It is a public service to go on television and make sure the news gets it right. But if we share space on the page or on TV with an anti-vaccine activist, we are only helping to give them the opportunity to sell their myths and we legitimize them by making their ideas seem equivalent with the science we are presenting. I put that in bold because if you read nothing else, I want you to understand that.

We need to stop agreeing to interviews when anti-vaxxers are being interviewed for the same story.

And I have done this. I am minor and easily replaceable, but it is a matter of principle. A minor cable news channel called and asked me for an on-camera interview. I asked immediately who else was being interviewed and found out they were also interviewing an anti-vaccine activist. So I said no. As luck would have it, they immediately called a friend of mine who told me about the request, and I was able to share with her what I’d learned. She, too, turned down the interview. What did they do? After watching the interview, it appears they stopped some random person in the parking lot and asked his opinion. Instead of the anti-vaxxer being given equal weight with a non-profit director, she was given the weight of a random guy from the parking lot. I wasn’t thrilled she was interviewed, but she didn’t seem as legitimate as she might have.

No matter who you are: a doctor, a public health official, a parent, etc., if someone calls and asks to interview you for a media story, the first words out of your mouth should be, “Who else are you interviewing?” If they are interviewing an anti-vaxxer, just say no. They might find someone else to interview, unless we all agree to stop being complicit in perpetuating false balance. But I hope, over time, they will just stop calling the anti-vaxxers and realize that the real battle is against preventable disease and not a cage match involving opposing sets of facts.

No, There Isn’t a Simple Way to Get Anti-Vaccine Parents to Vaccinate

Everywhere you look, the media is telling you that you can scare anti-vaccine parents into vaccinating by showing them photos of sick kids and telling them stories about diseases. Article after article after article lately is telling us that we can win vaccine debate and change minds–simply! Why didn’t we all think of this before? (Seriously. Click that hyperlink.)

The buzz in the media is based on a new study published in PNAS looking at ways of countering anti-vaccine beliefs. The study looked at over 300 people with varying degrees of vaccine acceptance and hesitancy and presented them with one of three forms of vaccine information: a mother’s story about her child’s measles, facts debunking vaccine myths, or information about birds. The stories, it turns out, had the greatest effect on attitudes about vaccines. As Tara Haelle at Forbes points out:

So, presenting individuals with the dangers of not vaccinating, both in words and in images, seemed to help them think more positively about vaccines. In fact, the effect was most dramatic in those who had the lowest scores – the poorest attitudes toward vaccines – at the start.

Let’s be very clear that this study absolutely did not measure whether or not parents of unvaccinated children then went out to vaccinate their children. Their attitudes simply shifted because the risks associated with not vaccinating were reframed for them in a way that was both relatable and memorable. (In fact, I’m quoted in Haelle’s article saying that.)

I mention this limitation because I do not want pro-vaccine advocates to be lulled into thinking that the way to win debates or get people to vaccinate is to bombard them with pictures of sick kids and stories about suffering children. I can imagine social media arguments where anti-vaxxers make their same tired assertions only to be answered by a well-meaning pro-vaxxer who thinks she can solve it all by posting a photo of an ill child. I’ve been to the rodeo a few times, and while that might get some attention, we aren’t going to solve the issue of vaccine hesitancy that way.

In fact, I have witnessed in person that very technique not working. I was at a screening of the film Invisible Threat, which contains two stories of disease and its awful effects. Afterward, during the Q&A, one woman wanted to talk about how Vaccine Court proves that vaccines are unsafe. See how easy it is to set aside a story in favor of your own entrenched beliefs?

Do you know what actually makes people deconvert from the anti-vaccine movement? Other people who care about them.

I have spoken to and worked with and met many, many people who used to be anti-vaccine and many more who had some degree of fear about vaccines. Understanding the risk of disease through story was vital to them understanding why we prevent those diseases, but it wasn’t the end of their deconversion. Every one of these people I have met has had someone in their life–a doctor, a friend, a new acquaintance, a family member–who cares enough to keep a civil conversation going. And the conversation was not grounded in winning a debate. The conversation was grounded in a sincere and deep concern about protecting children.

So go ahead and tell your stories about your encounters with disease. They are critically important because they remind us that we don’t do all of this for nothing. But ground this conversation in kindness and goodwill, and plan on sticking around for a while. Telling the stories is just the first step. Showing we care enough to keep talking is crucial. And no, it’s not easy.

Sanctimonious Anti-Vaccine Woopreneur is Back on the Circuit

Do you remember cardiologist and supplement peddler Dr. Jack Wolfson? Part of his schtick is convincing parents that vaccines are bad and disease is good–a schtick that gets him quite a bit of publicity.

For example, during the Disneyland measles outbreak he told the Arizona Republic: “We should be getting measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, these are the rights of our children to get it.” Why would a doctor want your children to get sick? After all, most pediatricians try to prevent illness, and therefore suffering and potential complications, in their young patients. But Wolfson is not a pediatrician; he is a cardiologist-turned-supplement salesman. He is not without conflicts of interest.

When asked about children who cannot be vaccinated and who might be particularly vulnerable to diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox, he told a Phoenix news station:

It’s not my responsibility to inject my child with chemicals in order for [another child] to be supposedly healthy…I’m not going to sacrifice the well-being of my child. My child is pure. It’s not my responsibility to be protecting their child.

Not only does he think it is your child’s right to be sick, but he also thinks it is not your responsibility to contribute to community health.

After spouting off about the glories and disease and the pretend dangers of vaccines, Wolfson went silent, perhaps in part because he was under investigation by the medical board. What a relief that was!

Our reprieve was short-lived, though, because he is back. In a in a poorly written article chock-full of false balance, Wolfson is given a platform where he weighs in about vaccines against a doctor who is for them. The article focuses on the vaccine “debate,” framing it as a debate between scientists even though practically every doctor and scientist working in a field related to immunization agrees that vaccines are generally safe and effective.

In the article, Wolfson claims that “Zero is the number of randomized, placebo controlled vaccine trials,” casting doubt that vaccines have been studied. Granted, they have been studied, but Wolfson wants them studied in a way that would divide a group of children in two, giving half of the children vaccines and half the children a placebo, revealing to no one who has been immunized and who has not, and setting them free into their communities to potentially contract and disseminate diseases.

What sort of parent would agree to that study? Would an anti-vaccine parent agree to possibly having their child vaccinated without their knowledge? Would a pro-vaccine parent agree to leaving their children vulnerable without their knowledge. Of course not, but that doesn’t matter. Such a study is completely unethical.

Even though Wolfson suggests that unethical studies be performed on children, he has the gall to say, “Our children are not an experiment.” I call bologna. Those who perform actual studies that are both rigorous and ethical on immunizations know that they are studied more than any other pharmaceutical before they are given to our children and are continuously monitored unlike any other medication. Vaccinating children is not treating them like an experiment. Suggesting that disease is good and then turning around and selling unregulated supplements is treating children like an experiment.

Making unsupported, ridiculous statements about vaccines and then turning around and selling supplements seems to be a hallmark of anti-vaccine doctors. They are immune to being reasoned with or even shamed as long as their marketing scheme of frightening parents away from vaccines and into the loving embrace of their online stores keep working. We can work on those parents and give them good information about vaccines before they encounter the grifters and their sleight of hand. I fear, though, that nothing can stop these doctors except shutting down their online stores. In the meantime, as loudmouths like Wolfson continue hawking their wares under the guise of answering questions about immunization, we might have to be louder in our response.

Dr. Bob’s Long Con

Being savvy at internet communication and social media is becoming more important for doctors and healthcare providers, especially since so many parents seek out information about vaccines (and much more) online. One of the wonderful things I get to do is go around and speak to healthcare workers and public health people, and I stress the importance of reaching out to their communities through online media. People I know and respect, like Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, Dr. Nathan Boonstra, and ZDogg MD, all have varying and significant (and wonderful) online platforms.

Dr. Bob Sears, a pediatrician for whom I have little respect, has lately been dipping his toes into the online scene. In reality, his family has been huge online for a number of years following their success with Attachment Parenting bible The Baby Book and other parenting books. When I was a new mom, I took comfort in some of the information I could easily get from the Sears family books and website, although I knew their approach wasn’t right for everyone.

Page 628 of The Baby Book answered my concerns about vaccines.
Page 628 of The Baby Book answered my concerns about vaccines.

Dr. Bob has since made a name for himself by writing The Vaccine Book, which is full of misinformation and lies by omission. Conveniently, the book also includes an alternate schedule–one which has never been studied or tested, but which does allow the parent to make more than twice as many visits to a pediatrician.

I had always assumed that his endgame was that obvious. Sell some books; get parents to make extra appointments. Actually, I’ll back up. I do believe that he buys into what he is selling–that aluminum is scary and that an alternate schedule is a good thing. I think at some point, he read a study that made him uneasy, and the subsequent studies and evidence have not shaken his obstinate insistence that vaccines are not safe. This assumption is purely my conjecture. However, I think the fact that he uses the fear of vaccines as a marketing tool for his book and for his practice is significant. But I really had thought that was the end.

When Dr. Bob started what he called a “blog” on Facebook (I can forgive him that he has confused a social media outlet for a blogging platform), it seemed to be an extension of his fear-based marketing for his book and his practice. It was clear that he was trying to cultivate an everyman, lovable image of himself.

Of course, he missed the mark sometimes. My favorite so far was the post in which he made fun of parents using strollers at his office.

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That’s not charming. Lately, he has been using this Facebook-blogging platform to lobby against SB277. Since a significant portion of his social media followers (and probably his patients) skew toward vaccine hesitant and anti-vaccine, being against this bill seems to fit both his persona and his marketing scheme. In one recent post, he compares his vaccine refusing patients to holocaust victims (and then adds a disclaimer that he didn’t compare them to holocaust victims).

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I could spend an entire post explaining how that disclaimer is complete horse pucky, that the holocaust was that time when Jewish people many years ago felt discrimination and prejudice while being asked to wear yellow Stars of David, but this is the man who sits in his office and laughs at parents as they put their children in strollers for an appointment with him. There is too much lost on him, and his patients will continue to defend him as long as he makes them feel good for feeling bad about vaccines. It’s part of his marketing scheme.

Except I had the end game wrong this whole time. I had always assumed that because his family already endorsed all sorts of untested supplements and that because he had branched out into anti-vaccine land and staked a claim there, that his marketing plan was just about the book and the practice.

But then Dr. Bob opened his own Mercola-esque online store, selling supplements for all people in many different situations. My favorite is the Immune Boost supplement.

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See all those asterisks under the percentage of the daily value needed? Yep–that’s stuff you don’t even need any of each day.  Perhaps to compensate, Dr. Bob gives us way more than we would need each day in Vitamin C.  All of this stuff we don’t need and extra stuff our bodies won’t use for one (not evaluated by the FDA) reason: to give our immune systems a boost.

It kind of begs the question–how do these herbs we don’t need and vitamins we don’t need that much of know just how much to boost the immune system? What if they boost the immune system too much? Could they turn the immune system against us and make it attack us? And if we are concerned about our immune system, why aren’t we helping it practice defending us against diseases by just getting vaccinated?

Actually, this whole affair begs a better question–now that Dr. Bob has thrown his entire lot in with the anti-vaccine crowd, turning his back on his evidence-based colleagues, will they buy his supplements? Or will they feel like they have been the victim of his long con?

The Most Egregious Example of False Balance

Discussions about vaccines are not debates, and the science behind vaccines does not have two sides any more than the science behind the roundness of the Earth does. So why are journalists still trying to balance their reporting about immunization with “the other side”?

I am somewhat sympathetic to journalists. Sometimes, when people in a community are making noise about their vaccine denialism, a journalist might have a hard time ignoring their noise in a story, even if their noise, while loud, represents a micro-minority of the community.

Today, however, I found one article about which I can muster no sympathy. It was a story about a boy out of Ft. Myers, Florida who had undergone a liver transplant due to cancer and then caught chickenpox from an unvaccinated child. Predictably, because of his compromised immune system, chickenpox nearly cost him his life.

It started off so promising, and it is really important for people in a community to be able to put faces to the abstract idea of “immunocompromised” and understand that real children need the real protection from community immunity. Our vaccines protect our friends and neighbors, too, after all.

In this very important story about a child who was already sick and whose community failed to protect him, the journalist included this quote from a chiropractor with no expertise in vaccines, immunology, or infectious diseases:

So, NBC2 spoke with Doctor Brienne Gindele.

She’s a family chiropractor in Fort Myers who does not believe in vaccinating young children.

‘The risks do not outweigh any benefits as far as I’m concerned, the neurological changes it makes to on especially an infant,” Dr. Gindele explained.

Gindele does believe it is the parents [sic] responsibility to make sure their children are immune to certain viruses though, whether a vaccine is used or not.

“If people choose to immunize then they need to be educated enough to understand that they need to get their children’s immunity checked,” Dr. Gindele told NBC2.

Dr. Gindele can believe all the livelong day anything she wants, but her beliefs are not supported by science, and they certainly are not newsworthy any more than the beliefs of a person who doesn’t like how seatbelts wrinkle his clothing would be relevant in a story about a near-fatal car accident. In fact, some of Dr. Gindele’s beliefs are factually wrong. Vaccines do not make neurological changes on an infant (and yes, that is code for autism).

Furthermore, this poor boy’s parents did not need to get his immunity checked. His parents knew he was completely vulnerable to chickenpox because he had undergone treatment for cancer and an organ transplant. They knew they were relying on the community to protect him. The community failed, and one chiropractor who uses fear of vaccines to sell her own services and is making excuses for this failure is completely irrelevant to this boy’s plight.

The journalist ends the piece with a quote from the parents, but she introduces it this way:

But, the Bells believe differently.

I can’t speak for the Bells, but their perspective is not about beliefs. As a matter of evidence and reality, their child actually suffered from a disease that he caught because charlatans continue to promote the idea that vaccines cause autism–something they (insultingly and incorrectly) frame as a fate worse than death. In a community where parents fell prey to this misinformation and endangered the life of a boy who deserved protecting, one journalist decided to continue to make the world a dangerous place by giving the purveyors of misinformation another platform.

Avoiding false balance isn’t just about being accurate. It’s also about not creating a world that endangers the lives of children.

UPDATE: If you tried clicking on the hyperlink to the article in question, you will notice that it has been taken down after numerous people emailed the producers at NBC-2 in Ft. Myers and Tweeted to the journalist in question. I have archived the article here. Together, we can eliminate false balance in media stories about vaccines.