Tuesday, September 23, 2014

You Might Be Anti-Vaccine If...: The Hidden Mission of "Children of God"

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.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

What Does Climate Change Have to Do with Vaccines?

I come from a family of science-loving, science-minded people. While none of us went into the sciences as a profession, some of us have gone into professions in which science literacy matters. One hot-button issue in our family is climate change—specifically, climate change denialism. We’ve seen the damage done by these anti-science zealots whose aim is to create enough doubt in the minds of the regular citizen to thwart legislation that could help halt the relentless march toward global disaster. We’ve watched as journalists, for many years, decided to present the climate change issue as a controversy requiring equal air time for both the climate change scientists and the denialists, prolonging this period of doubt. The result? While more than 98% of scientists are in agreement that our planet is warming, people in the United States are split about 50/50 on the issue. This will have devastating impacts on our future, and it deeply bothered members of my extended family, as well as myself. Several members of my family are particularly vociferous about how damaging denialism is in the climate change discussion, rivaling perhaps only me in my drive to counter anti-vaccine rhetoric. They do not let any opportunity pass them by in which they don't speak up in favor of the science. It's one of the many things I admire about them.

So what does this have to do with vaccines? Well, there is an interesting parallel between the climate change “controversy” and the vaccine “controversy.” Namely, that the so-called controversy was manufactured in both cases despite the fact that there exists remarkable scientific consensus; that this resulted in doubt sown in the minds of the public that was not backed by science; and that the results will be harmful to human beings. The parallel is so complete that even the media’s handling on both of issues is strikingly similar. Nowadays, the media does not, for the most part, feel that journalistic balance is achieved when a climate change story features a denialist. If anything, it puts the whole story out of balance. Over really the last year or so, the media has stopped featuring anti-vaccine activists in every vaccine story published or produced. But the media has been complicit in both cases of misrepresenting science. This parallel is something we talk about with some regularity in my family.

Then this happened: one of my "climate change guru" family members went to the doctor after contracting pneumonia. In the exam room, she decided to ask the nurse her advice regarding vaccines. She tells me that the nurse replied: “I think there are too many.” I'm not sure what else the nurse said, because Climate Change Guru immediately realized this was about to turn into a "conversation." I was sick to my stomach that a health professional would sow fear and doubt about vaccines in an exam room. I was sick because I knew exactly how powerful this nurse's doubt about vaccines could be. I'd been in that position before--a scared new parent with a baby, looking to any and all medical professionals in the clinic for information about vaccines and vaccine safety. I know a great deal more about vaccines and the lies of the anti-vax movement now than I did as a new parent. I have no doubt that if a nurse had said these words to me in that lull between the doctor’s exam of my child and the administering of the vaccines, I would have been filled with fear. I know I would have delayed the vaccine in question, perhaps even skipped it altogether.

To my mind, a nurse is a member of the medical establishment, and if there is widespread disagreement in the medical establishment about the safety of vaccines, I would never put my child in what I had been convinced, by a medical professional, was harm’s way. But by walking out that door with my child left unvaccinated, I would have left him vulnerable to any number of devastating illnesses. How would I have made sense of things if my son had contracted, say, pertussis during the seemingly constant pertussis outbreaks? Or measles, during the various measles outbreaks we've experienced? If he'd been hospitalized, and the doctors caring for him asked me why I hadn't vaccinated him in order to spare him this pain and suffering, I would have said: "A nurse told me there are too many vaccines and I got scared." And I would have felt betrayed by the medical establishment I trusted. 

“This nurse speaks to countless patients,” I told my Climate Change Guru. “I am certain some of them are parents. What if a parent chooses not to vaccinate based on what this nurse says and the child contracts pertussis? What if that child passes pertussis on to an infant? What if the infant dies?” I could feel my heart racing, the anger coursing through my body. “You have to say something,” I continued. “You have to write a letter.”
            “I will not do that.”
            “What?” I sputtered.
            “I’m not going to get a nurse fired for sharing her opinion with me.”
            “You don’t get her fired. You don't even have to mention her by name. Hell, write it anonymously if you want. The head of the clinic may take it as an opportunity to clarify clinic policy. She can’t be allowed to continue saying this stuff in a medical setting. She’s entitled to her own opinion, but it is flat-out wrong for her to spout misinformation in a medical setting to patients. There is absolutely no evidence to back up her opinion, and all kinds of evidence to the contrary.”
            My Climate Change Guru abruptly ended the conversation and walked out. She would not mention this experience to anyone at the clinic, and was, I could tell, regretting even telling me it had happened.
            I’m still angry. I’m disappointed. And I’ve done a lot of thinking about this experience over the last few days. I’ve realized that the climate change/vaccine parallel continues in ways I hadn’t even considered, and it’s helped me pinpoint why, exactly, I’m still angry.
Imagine this: My Climate Change Guru attends parent-teacher conferences for her child. In that parent-teacher conference, she asks her child’s teacher about his teaching philosophy regarding the science of climate change. The teacher replies: “Well, I believe climate change is a hoax, but I teach ‘both sides of the issue.’” My Climate Change Guru would not leave that classroom until she’d given the teacher a piece of his mind. She’d likely go to the principal and complain, perhaps pull her child from the class. It’s not just about her child. It’s about all the other children this teacher is educating. In a position of power and influence, he is capable of affecting these children’s educational outcome, even their world view. His views on climate change could “infect” his students. Would Climate Change Guru walk away quietly?
Not a chance.
            Then why did she walk away from the nurse? What is different in this scenario? After all, the parallel is complete. The nurse is in a position of power and influence. What she says and does can have a substantial impact on a child’s health outcomes—and by extension the health outcomes of the entire community. If a family chooses not to vaccinate because of her opinion that there are too many vaccines, that family could contract a vaccine-preventable disease. They could then pass that disease on to others in the community. The response to this? A shoulder shrug. It was the nurse’s “opinion.” Climate Change Guru wasn’t going to make trouble.

           Of course there are anti-vaccine nurses, just as there are anti-vaccine teachers, anti-vaccine car mechanics, anti-vaccine postal workers. In fact, since beginning work in this vaccine world, I’ve come to understand that there are far more nurses who believe vaccines are harmful than I could have dreamed possible. This is one reason why groups such as Nurses Who Vax are so crucial. What bothers me most is my family member’s decision to say nothing, in her failure to see the parallel. We have a moral obligation to speak up at moments like this—which is exactly what my Climate Change Guru would have me believe about the climate change discussion. “We can’t let this happen on our watch,” is something she’s said to me before. I challenge her, and anyone else who has heard similar sentiments in the exam room: will you let anti-vaccine rhetoric echo in the halls of medicine on your watch?