By Karen Ernst
It’s no secret that anti-vaccine organizations like to hide the fact that they are anti-vaccine. By name alone, one might never guess that the National Vaccine Information Center was anti-vaccine, but its main purpose is to frighten people away from vaccines, and they spend the bulk of their bandwidth and energy opposing any legislation aimed at increasing immunization rates. While NVIC claims it is “pro-safe vaccines,” you would be hard-pressed to look at its efforts and conclude anything other than that the organization is anti-vaccine.
But there are some organizations that are anti-vaccine without presenting their primary purpose as the opposition of immunization. These organizations can be a pitfall for people not actively attuned to the world of the immunization advocacy. Chili’s fell into such a trap a few months ago when it tried to support autism awareness and services and ended up promoting an organization that promotes the debunked vaccine-autism link, National Autism Association, before it abruptly canceled the promotion after a nationwide outcry.
For a long time, I had given another organization, Children of God for Life (CoG), a wide berth because I took the organization’s statements about vaccines at face value. The people running the organization claim to want pharmaceutical companies “to produce safe, effective alternatives for the existing vaccines and medical products and to use ethical alternatives in future products.” This statement has to do with their pro-life stance. I had always assumed that CoG were parents who were so passionate about being pro-life that they hoped to petition companies to make vaccines that are not produced through the use of cell lines derived from aborted fetuses. If that were truly their mission, they might not be pro-vaccine, but you’d be hard pressed to characterize them as anti-vaccine, either.
In the last week, however, I have had encounters with CoG that have convinced me that they are anti-vaccine, and in sharing the tell-tale signs of this anti-vaccine organization, I’m hoping to help others avoid being ensnared by such anti-vaccine organizations.
Reliance on weak science to prop up their position
Children of God has a number of doctors and PhDs associated with their organization, and discerning the science that is valuable from the science that is junk ought not to be difficult for them. So it is troubling that they latch on to science that comes from unreliable sources and is flimsy, poorly constructed, and dismissed by the majority of experts in that field.
Their current scientific cornerstone is a recently published article by Dr. Theresa Deisher that claims that autism incidence increased at points in time when vaccines grown in human cell lines were added to the CDC schedule and that residual DNA from the cell lines is itself inserted into the cells of children, then replicated, making them autistic. A thorough debunking of this idea can be read here, here, here, and here. Earlier analyses of these claims can be found here, here, and here.
Children of God has also latched on to anti-vaccine activist Brian Hooker’s recently published article (which has now been taken out of public domain) claiming that the MMR vaccine given between 24 and 36 months increases the risk of autism in African-American boys (as compared to “not specified”). This study, conducted by a man who is actively seeking compensation from the government for a claim that vaccines caused his son’s autism and who partnered with fraud Andrew Wakefield to promote his claims, is thoroughly eviscerated here, here, and here.
Caption: CoG Director Debi Vinnedge shares Hooker study on the CoG public Facebook group.
Anti-vaccine organizations often try to use science to their advantage, but they put ideology ahead of evidence. Science is about data and evidence. Science isn’t about promoting a cause, and any group that makes claims about vaccines and science in order to promote their primary agenda (be it a pro-life agenda or an autism “recovery” agenda) might just be anti-vaccine.
Replacing evidence with ad hominem attacks against vaccine-promoting people
Anyone who promotes science should expect close scrutiny of their claims and the evidence he or she presents to support those claims. As with government testimony or professional publication, conflicts of interest should absolutely be examined, and, if found, remedied. However, unsupported accusations of conflicts of interest should not be the sole basis of any critique.
It is telling when the director of an organization lobs the Pharma Shill Gambit to distract from her absence of argument. Debi Vinnedge, CoG’s Director, can be found in several places using the Pharma Shill Gambit.
In one blog’s comment section, Debi Vinnedge call infectious disease specialist, author, pediatrician, and rotavirus vaccine inventor Paul Offit a “shill for the pharm industry.”
But here’s the thing, according to CoG’s guidelines, Offit’s rotavirus vaccine is ethically produced. They should have no problem with him, according to their primary goals. (More on that in a bit.) Perhaps the problem for CoG is that after working for twenty years on inventing a vaccine, Paul Offit was paid for his work.
But the attacks are not limited to vaccine inventors or public figures.
In another blog combox, Ms. Vinnedge calls a fellow pro-life, Catholic parent a “shill” because she once wrote (without pay) a blog post for Voices for Vaccines. The rest of the comment is ugly as well and not worth commenting on, except to say that if the director of an organization willingly slings mud on those who should agree with her but are in favor of vaccines, that organization might just be anti-vaccine.
Public statements against vaccines with no connection to the organization’s primary purpose
If I were director of a pro-cancer organization, it would make sense that I would rally against the HPV vaccine, since it is a vaccine that prevents cancer. If I were an organization whose main purpose was to promote abstinence-only education, I might be under the very wrong impression that the HPV turns girls to a life of promiscuity, and then maybe--maybe maybe-- it would “make sense” to be against the HPV vaccine. However, any autism organization or pro-life organization that has anything negative to say about the HPV vaccine is merely demonstrating its deep anti-vaccine tendencies.
The HPV vaccine is not made with human cell lines, and is therefore made ethically according to CoG standards. And yet, on their home page, CoG has a warning about “Gar-duh-$-ill.”
It’s clever because it tells you in one word that a cancer-preventing vaccine studied across the globe on millions of girls and found to have no severe side effects is dumb (duh), made only for the profits ($), and will make you ill.
Want to know if an organization is anti-vaccine? Ask them what they think of the HPV vaccine. If they have a clearly negative opinion based on the work of known anti-vaccine organizations, they just might be anti-vaccine.
Reliance on information from other anti-vaccine sources
There are plenty of organizations and websites that exist in order to frighten parents away from vaccinating. They often use conspiracy theories to further their mission while favoring unsubstantiated rumors over scientific proof. Natural News is among the most preposterous of these sources, and no legitimate organization would share information from Natural News unless they were trying to stoke fear about vaccines.
Another anti-vaccine website is SaneVax, whose sole purpose is to scare parents away from the HPV vaccine by sharing unsubstantiated and medically unverified stories on their website.
And if your public supporters include anti-vaccine group National Vaccine Information Center and Vaccination Liberation, you might just be anti-vaccine. After all, the company you keep shines a light on what you believe.
Organizations with a clear purpose should shy away from establishing anti-vaccine goals
Many solicitors visit our front door, and often these solicitors are representatives of non-profit organizations looking to further their cause. The environmentalists are frequent visitors, and I never think to ask them their stance on vaccines (although I did once dismiss a young lady who told me of the danger of “toxins” in our environment because I was suspicious).
How can you tell if an organization is anti-vaccine? Look at its use of science. Check out how it handles disagreement and if it is able to bring evidence to support its arguments or if it relies on personal attacks. Investigate its public statements about vaccines that have absolutely no connection to their mission. And make sure they are not associated with other anti-vaccine organizations or sources.
And if you agree with their primary purpose, ask yourself if you are really willing to support an organization willing to endanger public health and the lives of children in order to further their mission.