The rise of vaccine preventable diseases and the role of the press

How did the idea that vaccines are dangerous, toxin-filled CDC experiments metastasize so quickly from the fringe to the main stream? Keep in mind that not only have vaccines been scientifically proven to be safe, but that some of the arguments against vaccines are so scientifically incredulous they are the equivalent of saying there is a UFO sitting in Central Park right now.

So let’s begin at the beginning. In 1998 Andrew Wakefield produced research funded by a lawyer who was crafting a way to sue vaccine manufacturers (and vaccine dissenters say you can’t trust vaccines because Big Pharma is just out for a buck! I’m not saying Pharma isn’t out for a buck, but people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones).

Wakefield’s 12 patient case series, not a prospective study but a case series, was published in the Lancet, probably because it was a novel concept. Big journals do sometimes publish small case series and occasionally even case reports if they offer something completely different. Although, any scientist knows what is identified in a case report or a case series may not eventually hold up to rigorous prospective studies, but ideas have to start somewhere. The only problem is this particular idea was tended to, if not germinated, by a plaintiff’s attorney.

But what was so uniquely different about this case series was that Wakefield held a press conference to discuss the results. I remember seeing it on TV! I thought then and still do now, “Who the hell gets a press conference with cameras for a case series of 12 patients?” For the record, I am still waiting for the press to come calling about my fascinating case series on plasma cell vulvitis, a poorly studied and difficult to treat painful skin condition.

And then it just spread like wild fire. Despite the fact that a small case series would never be enough to change clinical practice, the seed was well sown. What was just incredulous to the scientific community was the fact that almost no time was given to doctors and researchers to count counter the flawed science.

With celebrity activist Jenny McCarthy, the message spread to Oprah, Larry King, and newspapers and online sources too numerous to count. I don’t blame McCarthy. I have no doubt her motives were pure and she was seduced by flawed science (Google University, you know). However, I do find it curious that she got more air time than other celebrities promoting equally devastating neurological conditions: David Hyde Pierce (Alzheimer’s) and Michael J. Fox (Parkinson’s) come to mind. Then again, they weren’t hollering about a smoking gun (I suppose fact checking is just too much to ask).

So here it is. I call on the press to right the wrong.

Oprah, you gave McCarthy a big pulpit. You have also given Dr. Christine Northrup a big pulpit and she speaks against HPV vaccination. Her idea is HPV doesn’t cause cancer (never mind the Nobel Prize was awarded to the researcher who made the connection between HPV and cancer!). Larry King, you gave McCarthy tons of airtime. Arianna Huffington, I don’t know how many op ed columns decrying vaccines you have allowed. And the list goes on and on.

Isn’t it time the press helped undo the conspiracy theory behind vaccines, or is good science just not newsworthy?

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3 Responses to The rise of vaccine preventable diseases and the role of the press

  1. Liz Ditz says:

    “Then again, they weren’t hollering about a spoking gun (I suppose fact checking is just too much to ask).”

    I think you meant smoking

    There are other culpable parties in addition to McCarthy. SAFEMINDS (founded in 2000). Arthur Allen’s 2002 article “The-Not-So-Crackpot Autism Theory” was published in the New York Times Magazine and got a lot of attention (To his credit, Allen later publicly criticized the autism – thimerosal connection).

    Generation Rescue was founded in in May 2005 and began placing large ads in national papers promoting the vaccine-autism meme, then Robert Kennedy, jrs, error-ridden screed “Deadly Immunity” was published simultaneously in Rolling Stone and Salon.

    Jenny McCarthy’s … well I suppose it was a book was published in Sept 2007. She seems to have an excellent publicist. She didn’t become the spokesperson for Generation Rescue until after the book was published, I think early in 2008.

    The false idea of “journalistic balance”

  2. Liz Ditz says:

    Sorry, clicked submit too soon.

    The mainstream media should also be criticized for a false sense of balance in reporting, or what the Skeptic’s Dictionary calls
    “pseudosymmetry”–”The false impression given by the mass media that scientists are equally divided on an issue. In its attempt at journalistic balance or in an effort to make a story more compelling, the mass media can give the public the impression that a single individual or a small band of contrarians represents a large group of scientists which disagrees with another large group of scientists. Such “balance” can give the impression that a scientific consensus has not been reached and that an issue is considered controversial within the scientific community when, in fact, it is not. “

  3. Gabrielle says:

    Thank you– I totally agree.
    At there is a running tally of vaccine-preventable illnesses and deaths in the US (based on CDC reporting.)
    Some of the diseases we vaccinate against have 40% fatality rates for infants*. DTaP prevents a 10-35% death rate; tetanus 20-60%; polio 10%.
    There is no vaccine side effect rate NEAR 40%; those are in the area of 1/1,000 to 1/1,000,000.
    Would parents rather have their baby dead than autistic?
    *from _The New Father_ by Armin Brott

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