time.com fawns over anti-vax activists

February 27, 2010

Unfortunately, many writers for news agencies often want to tell stories rather than respect whatever science is involved and the result is a very misleading human interest piece, much like a recent article about Jenny McCarthy published by Time. Sure, it pays some lip service to the concerns medical professionals have with her campaign against vaccines and in favor of unscrupulous doctors lining their pockets with unproven cures for autism, but the infrequent mentions of the scientific red flags are muted as not to get in the way of the kind of warrior mom narrative chosen for McCarthy by her handlers at Generation Rescue. That’s right media types, just turn the other way, say nice things about us, let us tell parents to turn their kids to become guinea pigs for quacks, and we won’t have to demonize you as sleazy, baby-eating monsters or try to sue you into silence.

The biggest problem with the Time feature is that instead of the facts of the matter, readers are treated to Karl Greenfled’s fawning and disappointingly cavalier treatment of a very serious ethical issue in medicine. Having a child diagnosed with a condition that’s poorly explained and understood is terrifying. Parents want a solution and treatment plans, but the problem in the case of an autism diagnosis is that responsible doctors need to rely on clinical testing and their work is tightly regulated by a number of laws and institutional standards. They can’t promise magical cures or offer to try untested, experimental regimens based on highly speculative, often very limited studies without having a good idea that this will actually help the child. Add on top of that the highly speculative nature of an autism diagnosis and it’s potential genetic links, and you’re dealing with a complex set of cases where unnecessary experimentation could do far more harm than good.

But now, the quacks have gone marching in. Not restrained by the policies by which most doctors must abide, they can give worried and desperate parents a scapegoat in the form of vaccines, and promise cures based on a hefty dollop of creative license in interpreting the results of speculative studies and alt med notions. How could parents resist a solution being dangled in front of them, especially when their primary doctors offered a wait and see attitude, even doubting that little Johnny or Sally might have autism? Selective hearing goes wild and the parents begin viewing mainstream medicine as a hurdle to progress, not realizing that doctors aren’t in a rush to subject their kids to countless pills, diets, and a barrage of expensive treatments not because they don’t care or they want to be cruel to the parents, but because they have no evidence to believe it will help. The quacks, on the other hand, will try and bill for anything and everything. Having sunk thousands of dollars and a whole lot of heartache into all sorts of biomed woo, the parents want to see any improvement, no matter how small, as the result of all those novel cures rather than natural improvement or a misdiagnosis.

Organizations like Generation Rescue make things even worse by doing all they can to reinforce these views and trying their damnest to make vaccines out to be the cause of every imaginable pediatric evil, from blaming a whole host of random chemicals in them as the trigger for autism, to claiming that children are subjected to far too many vaccinations even though kids receive only 5% of the antigens they would’ve gotten just 30 years ago. Not only that, but they will dismiss any study showing that vaccines are safe and effective as a paid for piece of propaganda by Big Pharma, demanding a custom made vaccinated vs. unvaccinated trial without which they claim all the benefits of vaccinations are just a tenet of faith. Even if someone actually does such a cruel and unethical study and confirms that vaccines really are beneficial, they’ll find a way to reject it. One of a myriad of the hacks they employ will find that the uncle of a cousin of a friend of one of the nurses who worked with the study group was a salesman for a pharmaceutical company, or something like that, and dismiss the entire effort out of hand as more propaganda from vaccine makers, manipulated by their secret agents. But of course doing such a study would be ethically reprehensible and very problematic to carry out in the first place.

First of all, the control group will be exposed to illnesses which used to kill thousands of children on a regular basis without the benefit of having antibodies to fight them off. There really shouldn’t be a long explanation as to why this is incredibly irresponsible and would fail any ethics review by those who would fund this study. The other issue would be the herd immunity built up by the prevalence of vaccinations in most communities in the developed world. The 80% to 90% of vaccinated children would help those who aren’t vaccinated from having the chance to catch some diseases. However, when that level of vaccination falls, cases of measles, rubella, and other preventable childhood diseases reemerge, showing right then and there that vaccination works and works quite well. Anti-vaxers have been doing these sorts of experiments in the UK, US and Australia, causing public health emergencies in the process, certain that the risks of vaccines outweigh the benefits despite the sharp drop in vaccinations often corresponding to a sharp rise in childhood diseases.

So why would anti-vaxers even suggest doing these kinds of ethically questionable and dangerous studies to prove a point at the expense of their kids’ health? Because they’re absolutely sure that the only good study is a study that confirms their personal opinions and any research that fails to do so must be wrong. This is why all the calls for a vaccinated vs. unvaccinated study on the blogs of anti-vax luminaries declare that a proper study will confirm the fervent beliefs about vaccines. In other words, instead of following the evidence, they refuse to even consider any scientific work that doesn’t agree with their convictions, and continue to send children who were diagnosed with autism to quacks who torture them with unnecessary, dangerous and expensive cures and pseudoscientific treatments. And when reporters write fawning and teary-eyed articles about their pretty and famous spokespeople and the hope of worried parents that something will magically cure their kids, this dark side of the anti-vax movement is hidden from the world exactly when it needs to be exposed.

[ illustration by Denis Zilber ]

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  • Paul

    In the days of Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, 150 years ago or so that Ob/Gyn doctor took the radical position that doctors should sterilize their hands before delivering babies. In his clinic he practically eliminated child bed fever which killed so many mothers at that time. While he would eventually be called the “Father of antisepsis” he was roundly dismissed and ridiculed by the “experts” of his day. Dr. Charles Meigs the emmiment head of Jefferson Medical colleges Ob/Gyn departement, said, “Physicians are gentlemen and gentlemen’s hands are clean”. Others called his work, “The Koran of peurpeural fever (child bed fever) theology”. So the killing continued unabated for decades more condemning tens of thousands of women to a painful death after childbirth.

    When autism was first described as a disease in the 1940s, the standard medical theory, first promulgated by an “expert” with a degree in philosophy was that the child’s disease was the result of “refrigerator mothers”.

    Leaving aside questions of vaccine efficacy now we have people questioning the wisdom of taking a vaccine that often contains a preservative already banned in much of the world for documented neurotoxicty. A mercury based preservative that is entirely unnecessary for safe and efficacious vaccination. One that was to be banned from all pediatric vaccines in the US until the previous president vetoed that bill.

    Once again the experts are out in force ridiculing those who are concerned for their safety and/or the safety of their children. Well, I am skeptical of such experts.


  • DamianD

    While your point about the mercury based preservative is worth discussing, can you link to any studies that show that particular preservative, in the concentrations in which it is used as part of vaccinations, to be linked to any particular disorder or disease? Sure, it sounds nasty, but without any evidence (and by evidence I mean documented, tested and peer reviewed) that it is actually harming anyone, I don’t see how it proves anything about this blog entry and I certainly don’t see how it supports Jenny McCarthy’s claim that certain vaccinations cause autism.

    And how do you explain the overwhelming amount of data that shows no correlation between vaccinations and autism?

  • Paul

    Hi Damian,

    I didn’t really take a position on thimerosal and autism, Yes I am clearly concerned and feel as there’s no need for it, it is correct to err on the side of caution and eliminate it. And it is not just Playboy centerfolds who are concerned (interesting how she gets the press though, easy target) if I recall correctly a pediatrician and mother recently had her case decided by court of law that vaccinations caused her child’s autism. While it is not peer-reviewed, perhaps some of the most concerning information to my mind was a study done by CDC epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Verstraeten. Dr Verstraten looked at the CDC’s large Vaccine Safety database and stratified the patients into three cohorts based on total thimerosal exposure. He concluded that there was a statistically significant association at 2 months, 4 months, and six months with specific neurodevelopmental disorders dependent on the total dose of thimerosal received by the child from vaccinations. Hid did not find a link with autism – though the regressive form that parents complain of generally seems to coincide with vaccines at 2 years which was not addressed by his study. The results of his findings led to the now infamous Simpsonwood conference with FDA, CDC, WHO and major vaccine makers. The upstart of this research was the following.

    1) thimerosal would be voluntarily removed from all pediatric vaccines, as noted this was to become law but it was vetoed, while shortly after that the recommendation was made to expand flu vaccination(often thimerosal containing) to children -so really we are back at square one if not worse in terms of pediatric exposure. 2) The IOM would do a study on the issue, which came back inconclusive either way 3) The CDC dataset was sold to a private company, preventing any other researchers from replicating Verstraten’s work, who has since went to work for a drug company. As noted, major nations such as Japan, Russia and others have banned thimerosal because their research documented neurotoxicty. I don’t know what causes autism but why are we leaving for no good reason a useless mercury based preservative in our vaccines? Finally, going from leaches to hand-washing to cigarettes to diethyl stilbesterol, to hormone replacement therapy, to Vioxx to … why are such experts views valued more highly than the repeated concerns expressed by numerous children’s parents? Thanks for the discussion.

    Paul Maher, MD MPH


  • DamianD


    Thanks for answering me so thoroughly and politely. With regard to your point on thimerosal, it appears that more research is necessary but that we are faced with the unfortunate loss of the data that brought this potential issue to light. That leads me to two questions. The first is: do you believe the threat posed by thimerosal is great enough that parents should stop vaccinating their children and we should stop vaccinating against seasonal threats like influenza or simply that more strict regulations regarding the creation of these vaccinations is something we should be actively working toward?

    The second question I have is, while the original data has been sold to a private company and made unavailable for peer review, is it not possible to begin that research from scratch to attempt to recreate the data for further testing? If so, why is this not being done with this potential threat looming? I’m not doubting the possible accuracy of Dr. Verstraeten’s work, but in reading the latest entry of your own blog I notice that you point out the difficulty even the most accurate tests have with false positives when testing against ailments affecting such a small portion of the population. With such a potentially large margin for error in the test population, would it not be prudent to recreate the research from scratch and present it for peer review before making such a large decision that will affect the entire nation? Granted, playing it safe is usually not a bad way to go, but I have no idea what the impact on cost would be if vaccination companies had to change one of their preservatives and the cost of our healthcare is already at nearly back breaking levels. Unfortunately, money is an issue and can’t be ignored.

    As for your question about why the experts’ opinions are value more highly than those of questioning parents, I think the answer should be obvious to someone as educated as you. Experts have spent a great deal of time training in their respective fields and presumably utilize the scientific method when trying to answer questions. Concerned parents are often arguing from a position of emotion, often emotional turmoil if their children are ailing. It’s not hard to see why that makes it difficult to accept their arguments as equal to those of trained professionals. I’m not saying that issues like the thimerosal content within vaccinations, as you mention above, should be ignored entirely. But I do think it is vital that we maintain the procedures that have served us so well historically and wait for conclusive, peer reviewed studies before making changes on such a large scale.

  • Greg Fish

    Paul, you know, your comment looks quite familiar. In fact, it’s very familiar. You could even say it’s rather widespread. I also find it interesting that you’ve decided to use a technique known as the Galileo Gambit, saying that because one idea was criticized by a historical establishment, it must mean that it’s valid. But for every Semmelweis, or Pasteur, or Galileo, there were thousands of cranks whose ideas were wrong at best or reprehensible and dangerous at worst.

    Using a single pithy anecdote from the days before modern medicine to attack a very basic idea of the very same modern medical science is simply dishonest, especially coming from a doctor like yourself, as is your comment about what all this critique of anti-vaxers is really all about…

    Once again the experts are out in force ridiculing those who are concerned for their safety and/or the safety of their children. Well, I am skeptical of such experts.

    Nonsense. How is telling parents that exposing their children to diseases that could cause lifelong complications or even kill them is dangerous ridiculing the parents? I would much rather not see another quack line their pockets by torturing kids with the kind of expensive, medically questionable woo anti-vax groups cheer as revolutionary new science when it’s nothing of the sort.

    Also, I think your concern about thimerosal is rather odd since it was removed from all childhood vaccines since 2000 and is only added to seasonal flu shots. So what exactly is the problem now? There’s no more thimerosal in vaccines. This is why the anti-vax movement had to find other potential culprits as detailed in one of this post’s links because they have to paint vaccines as evil, no matter what the science says.

  • Paul

    Hi Damien,

    As regards your first question, I would answer it this way I believe, as is done in much of the world, all thimerosal needs to be removed from all vaccines it is only right to err on the side of caution, if it costs even 100 million dollars well we can take back 1/2000 of what we just gave AIG. If there is no benefit I am happy to be ridiculed once the mercury is out. As for particular vaccinations that is a personal decision to be made in consultation with one’s healthcare provider. I do believe, consequent to its great early successes, the pendulum has swung way too far in favor of vaccines. Do we really need to vaccinate a child at birth, before it’s immune system is fully developed, with a vaccine for Hepatits B, a blood borne (i.e. sexually transmitted) disease? There are well cataloged dangers even from vaccines. As regards influenza again these are personal decisions, I would just point out that scientifically the issues are not as cut and dry as often presented. People may use the word “science” like a bludgeon but if you actually look there is little support. To my knowledge (I’ll be fine with being shown wrong here) there has never been a placebo controlled trial of influenza vaccine in prevention of influenza. Again, because of early successes in other diseases the approval is made from the surrogate end point of immune response (antibody production) to the injection. While this is interesting data, it is certainly not the same thing as demonstrating in a clinical trial that you have actually prevented disease. I can cite for you three population based studies from the peer reviewed literature that found either no change or an increase in influenza hospitalizations and deaths after the advent of mass influenza inoculation. So I would say there needs to be more study and tighter regulation.
    As for your other points I would just say the science that ends up in a textbook didn’t happen in a vacuum and many people setting public policy or running businesses have interests and emotions that are not concerned with logic or science or sometimes even others well-being. To go back to Semmelweis’s time, his very clear and remarkable data was not accepted not because it was unscientific, but because it was unacceptable. Was the medical establishment going to turn around en masse and say overnight, gee he’s right, we’ve killed a whole lotta people. There would have been 100,000 angry husbands at doctors doors the next day saying, “you such and such you and your filthy hands murdered my wife and my child’s mother”.

    I don’t know what causes autism but vaccination is again a socially unacceptable answer and so there might be resistance to doing the type of research which definitively answers the question. Finally, I am not dismissing the wisdom and training of health care professionals but would just say also use your own head. And to be scientific about it, it should be admitted that from blood letting to Vioxx physicians such as myself have had a habit of sometimes if not often being not just wrong but spectacularly wrong.

  • Paul

    Hi gfish.

    I suspect we could go for months but I thought I should at least reply. My argument is not with principles of logic or often used scientific methodologies but that those who adhere to them are many times not recognized very quickly. Your Galileo’s Gambit critique has some irony as you provide an additional example therein. Galileo, in his day, was also considered a “crank” as you would call him who was persecuted for having wrong and potentially dangerous ideas. As for Semmelweis he was involuntarily committed to an insane asylum where he again ironically, died from sepsis (i.e. a blood infection as is child bed fever) after being beaten by the guards.

    Yes there are the highlights quickly accepted in medicine, Pasteur and the germ theory (which in turn allowed for the acceptance of Semmelweis’ views on antisepsis), Edward Jenner and the smallpox vaccination, John Snow shutting off the broad street pump to halt a cholera epidemic in London. However, it is not a gambit to recognize the other side of the coin, Galileo, Copernicus, Semmelweis. Nor would I call the plague of maternal death from memory maybe 1% of all births the mother died a lingering feverish death with outbreaks where half a maternity ward would die an insignificant finding. But to further bolster the reply to the Galileo’s gambit, I would again mention similar “expert” accepted medical positions that killed 1000s to millions. Blood letting used for many diseases, a pint for initial good measure in peurperal fever, more recently, promotion of smoking, promotion of Diethyl stilbesterol, promotion of hormone replacement therapy, promotion of Vioxx. Vioxx alone is estimated to have killed by heart attack around as many Americans as died in the Vietnam war in the ten years it was on the market. There are further examples.

    A former playboy centerfold is an easy target for emotionally charged debate but it only remains science if a position even regarding vaccines may be challenged.

  • Greg Fish

    I suspect we could go for months…

    We won’t. As much as I don’t mind debating my posts in the comments, I really don’t think I have that kind of time, especially since these posts don’t write themselves.

    it is not a gambit to recognize the other side of the coin.

    It’s a fallacy to believe that because an idea isn’t well regarded by scientists, it must be because the establishment is threatened by it based on the example of other big advances in science which were initially met with skepticism. Oh and by the way, that is exactly what scientists are supposed to do.

  • DamianD

    “Galileo, in his day, was also considered a “crank” as you would call him who was persecuted for having wrong and potentially dangerous ideas.”

    Galileo was a scientist at a time when being a scientist was dangerous. His ideas came into direct contrast with what the church was preaching and he was considered a “crank” because the church didn’t like that he was contradicting the bible. The situation isn’t the least bit comparable to how cranks are treated now.

    We live in a society where science won’t get you imprisoned or killed. But that doesn’t mean that having an idea means you have to listened to or taken seriously. You still have to go through the process of testing your idea, generating data, submitting it for peer review and waiting to see if it holds up to scientific. But you know that, so I have to wonder why you would point to Galileo.

    When people push ideas today, they are only considered cranks when they won’t submit to peer review or try to skirt the need for things like FDA approval. Scientists aren’t afraid of new ideas… in fact, most scientists get really excited when presented with new ideas. But people like Jenny McCarthy aren’t presenting new ideas for testing. She’s making enormous claims that sway thousands of people without having any evidence to back them up. She’s dangerous and she has nothing in common with Galileo.

  • Lesley

    I followed a link here expecting to find out why on earth Vax had become controversial and who was against it. Was startled to find the article was actually about “anti-vaccine activists.” Which, admittedly, makes much more sense.

    I’ve seen the Time article in question and thought your response was excellent; it deserves to have a headline that, rather than resorting to Brit-style shortcut slang, alerts even more readers to the dangers of anti-vaccine activism. Not enough people are paying attention to this issue and those who don’t know what you meant by “Vax” (and even moreso, those who don’t know what Vax actually is) might give your deserving blog a miss simply out of failure to comprehend. That would be a shame.

  • if marches

    does this reflect the views of the masses? Everyone makes mistakes. the trick is to make mistakes when nobody is looking. Gifted story, what about the matching work

    An estimated 295,000 people in the U.K. contracted flu-like illnesses in the four weeks that ended Aug.