Monday, May 19, 2014

Big Alterna and the Ties That Bind

By Karen Ernst

Editor's Note: Voices for Vaccines does not and never has accepted any government or pharmaceutical funding. The organization is supported 100% by individual member donations.

Recently, an anti-vaccine blog put together 11 Facts about Voices for Vaccines claiming to show that we are a “front group” for Big Pharma/the CDC. The blogger drew up charts showing the connection between various people (the charts were wrong) and included a map to show how close our fiscal agent was to the CDC (2.6 miles!). Yet, I work in my little (messy) rambler 1,120 miles away from this supposed vortex of evil, busily not being directed or controlled by the Task Force for Global Health, the CDC, Emory, or Big Pharma (or the reptillian overlords).

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All the conspiracy theories and convoluted logic about supposed and unproven influence by the CDC and pharmaceutical companies on a parent-led vaccine advocacy group makes it that much more interesting that the National Vaccine Information Center is indelibly tied to the hugely influential Big Alterna figurehead Joseph Mercola. Unlike any fiscal connection alleged between Voices for Vaccines and the CDC or Pfizer or any pharmaceutical company, the fiscal ties between NVIC and Mercola are factual, and I want to explore them with you here.

If you are a person who lives a normal life and only thinks about immunization when you bring your child in for his well-child check, the National Vaccine Information Center might sound like a good thing. It might sound positive to have information about vaccines in one convenient “center” for the whole nation.  The problem is that NVIC is definitely anti-vaccine. They have even gone as far as promoting a conspiracy theory about high school kids who created a film about immunization in an after school program. (Shockingly, like football and yearbook, this program was advised by adults, thus prompting the conspiracy theory.)

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In addition to the billboards NVIC buys across the United States asking motorists to “Know the Risks and the Failures” of immunization, NVIC also spends a great deal of time and energy opposing a great deal of vaccine-related legislation. They are even opposing proposed legislation that would provide information about vaccines and record students’ vaccination status.

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For an organization that claims it is not anti-vaccine but is rather “pro-informed consent,” opposing information seems odd.

Except that they are anti-vaccine and pro-misinformed consent.

I had assumed for a long time that this was the entire story, until the day (two days actually) the NVIC website went down and in its place:

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If the VFV website went down, I do not know what would appear there, but to be clear, VFV pays for its website from its own funds which comes from individual donors. The Task Force for Global Health is listed as the owner of our domain name because, as our fiscal agent (we are not yet our own 501(c)3 so do not have ready access to our bank account), they actually issued the check using the funds we raised for Voices for Vaccines.

So, which websites does Mercola provide funding for? (A hat tip to the Skeptical Raptor for this next part.)

Most interesting in this list of domains owned by is the number of them selling something. Bath products! Tanning beds! Water filters! Why would someone selling such an odd mish mash of home products care about helping an anti-vaccine organization promote their misinformation?

Perhaps because there is money to be made off of parents who eschew immunizations out of fear of what they see as “unnatural.” Make no mistake, parents seeking natural health alternatives make big bucks for Big Alterna. And Joseph Mercola, the doctor behind, is near the top of those cashing in.


Let’s review: the National Vaccine Information Center claims not to be anti-vaccine, but in favor of informed choice about vaccine, but as an organization they have made documented efforts to make it more difficult for parents to receive information about vaccines. They do not want schools to know who among their students is vaccinated (even in the case of outbreaks), and they do not want high school students to pursue documentary filmmaking about topics that interest them.

I believe Theresa Wrangham or even Barbara Loe Fisher, the women heading NVIC, believe the misinformation they promote, but if they believe they are not anti-vaccine, they are seriously delusional. And if they believe that Joseph Mercola is providing them with a website because he has a heart of gold, they should know that he probably bought that gold.

For a couple years now, I have sat on my slightly-too-tall IKEA chairs at my old computer fielding accusations about my connections to Big Pharma and the CDC, who apparently want to force parents to immunize their children because there’s money in it, and because the’re evil. (Note: you cannot buy tanning beds or supplements from VFV, the CDC, Emory University, or the Task Force for Global Health.) This strange theory is promoted enthusiastically by NVIC.

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And I’m not even sure what that is. Hypocrisy? Willing ignorance? Arrogance? I’m genuinely curious about what drives NVIC’s willingness to schlep out the Pharma Shill gambit while simultaneously being a Big Alterna Shill.

But the public should not be fooled. This isn’t a story of the little guy who is desperately seeking alternative health options in a world of cruel public health bullies trying to take away the little guy’s freedoms. This is a story about a well-oiled, well-funded machine. A machine that wants to keep you scared--that demands that you look at their information but no one else’s. A machine that would harass children and their teachers in order to obscure the truth about immunization and to sell you a tanning bed.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Letter to an Anti-Vaxxer from a Pro-Vax Mom

By Amanda Z Naprawa

I am pro-vaccine.

Vaccines are one of the greatest medical breakthroughs of the twentieth-century.  I believe vaccines  should be mandatory, except for a few very limited exemptions.  That because vaccines save lives. They prevent complications from disease by preventing the disease itself -- complications like blindness, deafness, infertility, paralysis. I am fully vaccinated. My children are vaccinated according to the recommended schedule. We all get flu shots every year.    

I'll say it again and without hesitation: I am pro-vaccine. 

You, on the other hand, are anti-vaccine. You may also be a beautiful celebrity or a best-selling author of childcare books. You may be the president of a "vaccine information group" or the leader of your local "clean living" club. But you are also anti-vaccine.  Please stop referring to yourself as "pro-informed consent" or "pro-safe vaccine" or any other name that tries to hide the truth of your position.

Individuals who urge parents to avoid vaccinating their children based on a slew of myths are anti-vaccine.  If, in the face of dozens of peer-reviewed, scientifically sound studies, you continue to scare parents into believing that vaccines cause autism, you are anti-vaccine.  If you use your good looks and flashy smile to convince parents that vaccines are more harmful than the diseases they aim to prevent, you are anti-vaccine. If you smile benevolently upon chickenpox parties, and mock concerns over the spread of measles, you are anti-vaccine.  If you threaten the scientists and doctors who have worked to create vaccines with bodily harm and death, you are anti-vaccine. If you bully high school students for making a documentary exploring the anti-vaccine movement, then, yes, you're anti-vaccine.

You are anti-vaccine, not "pro-informed consent."  If you were really for "informed consent," then you would push accurate information. True informed consent  requires that the relative risks, benefits and  uncertainties for each alternative treatment option be given to the patient.  When my child gets a vaccine,  my physician gives me an information sheet filled with all the benefits and potential risks of each vaccine.  I vaccinate my child knowing that the vaccine will offer significant protection against serious illness, and that my decision to vaccinate comes with a very, very small risk of some side effects.  I am fully informed.

If you were really pro-informed consent, then you would be giving the true risks of vaccines and the true benefits of vaccines.   You would tell parents --honestly -- that some vaccines carry an extremely small risk of seizure. You would also tell parents -- honestly -- that there is simply no evidence (aside from anecdotal, post-hoc stories) that vaccines carry a risk of autism.  You might tell parents, that you really really hoped that autism could be explained by vaccination (we would all like a simple explanation for autism)  but its not.

You claim to be pro-informed consent.  Informed consent requires that you give accurate, unbiased information necessary to make an informed medical decision.  If you were really  pro-informed consent, you would tell parents that the diseases that vaccines prevent are real. They are scary. They are dangerous.  Yes, many people have had diseases like measles and survived without lasting harm.  But why take the risk? Why let your child suffer an illness that is preventable? In the pre-vaccine era, 400-500 children died a year from measles. Per year. In contrast, 142 people have been compensated for measles vaccine-related injuries over the last eight years.  That's information that a parent can use to make an informed decision about vaccination. That's pro-informed consent.  But that is not what you are about. You minimize the death of children from vaccine-preventable disease by "putting them into perspective."

You are so proud of your accomplishments in increasing awareness of the alleged dangers of vaccination. You have worked so hard to increase the number of states with exemptions to mandatory vaccination. You have tirelessly spread the news that the government cannot be trusted, that vaccine manufacturers cannot be trusted, and that the average vaccine-friendly pediatrician cannot be trusted either.  You have made money, sometimes lots of it, selling the idea that vaccines are dangerous and should be avoided.

There's a name for that. And its got nothing to do with informed consent.

Amanda Z Naprawa is an attorney and graduate student in the Masters of Public Health program at University of California, Berkeley. She believe in promoting immunization through the dissemination of accurate information about vaccine safety. She is the author of various articles, including "Don't Give Your Kid That Shot: The Public Health Threat Posed by Anti-Vaccine Speech and Why Such Speech is Not Guaranteed Full Protection Under the First Amendment." 11 Cardozo Pub. L. Pol'y & Ethics J. 473 (Summer 2013)