Friday, October 21, 2011

The Google Conundrum

As a new parent, I did the same thing every single parent in my state, probably in the country, did before bringing in my kid for his vaccinations: I googled "vaccines." Big mistake. There were no obvious signs that I had fallen down the rabbit hole. In fact, I was directed to some very official looking websites, one of which was The National Vaccine Information Center.

National Vaccine Information Center. That sounds official. And I need information on vaccines. Great. It took me a while to realize that the site I was visiting belonged to an anti-vaccine organization. (As Dr. Ari Brown pointed out during this weekend's Got Your Shots immunization conference here in Minnesota, you always want to get your vaccine information from a website that has a scrolling ad for lawyers on the margin of the page, right!) Then there's the Vaccine Safety Council. Again, sounds official. And I want safe vaccines. Let's head on over there and see what gives. And so began some of the most stressful months of my life, becoming scared of harming my son with vaccines, coming to realize, through research, that I had been sold a bill of goods by the anti-vaccine community, and was in danger of putting my son's life at risk if I didn't vaccinate. Somehow I climbed out of that rabbit hole and got back on steady ground.  I know other parents face the same terror I felt after doing that first Google search, so I want to provide some basic information here in the hopes that it can be a kind of Cliff's Notes for you or new parents you know who are doing the vaccine thing. As new and expecting parents, the last thing we want and, frankly, have time for is examining verbiage, nuance of language, and point of view on websites we come across during a 2am Google search between nursing and changing a diaper. What I learned was that I could not take anything for granted--I could not assume that seemingly straightforward, unbiased names like "National Vaccine Safety Council" or "Vaccine Information Center" were providing factual information. Notice that none of these sites call themselves "The Anti-Vaccine Clearinghouse" or "Moms Who Don't Vax." They refer to themselves as people desiring "safe vaccines" (hint: we already have them) or "more research" (hint: the research is in, and it's conclusive).

I want to provide some shorthand for you sleepy parents out there who want to know about some of the sites you find during a Google search. Please note: I only list the first five notable anti-vaccine sites that appear in a Google search for "vaccines" here. I'm happy that the CDC's site, the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP)'s site on vaccines, and other credible sources are appearing higher and higher in this particular Google search. But in the meantime, if you are a new parent, please know this about the following websites you will encounter on your Google adventure.

1.) National Vaccine Information Center: Anti-vax organziation run by an anti-vaccine activist named Barbara Loe Fisher. Unfortunately, this is currently the third or fourth link that shows up under a Google search for "vaccines." To get a sense of what these folks are about, check out this story from Discover Magazine online.

2.) SafeMinds: Anti-vax organization run by another anti-vaccine activist named Sallie Bernard, former marketing executive. Left Brain Right Brain, a science blog, says this about the organization:

"SafeMinds has shown themselves to be very resistant to the very research they called for. Studies which show a lack of association between thimerosal containing vaccines (TCV’s) and autism are always rejected by SafeMinds. They are not alone in this, groups such as Generation Rescue and the National Autism Association(NAA) have also refused to accept the science.
Incidentally, one of the hallmarks of the anti-vax movement is an astonishing level of defensiveness. This is a trait you will rarely see (I've never seen it) in the pro-vax movement. Perhaps this is because we have nothing to be defensive about. You will also not see vindictive attacks on anti-vax activists from public health authorities and pro-vax parents, like this one Safeminds perpetrated on one of their pro-vax critics, a parent. Acts like this should go into your consideration of whether a source is trustworthy enough to earn your confidence.

3.) Association of American Physicians and Surgeons: a very official and "medical-sounding" organization that is anti-vaccine. For a detailed explanation of this organization's approach, please go to Science-Based Medicine's post on it. Shorthand: they had disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield speak at their conference.

4.) Natural Sadly, some parents look to this website as a source for medical information. It is notably anti-vaccine and has no problem providing "medical information" suggesting vaccines cause harm that is, frankly, nothing but lies. Even if you've never taken a science class in your life, you will quickly see through the stories posted on this very odd website. To give you an idea of how poor of a grasp the folks who run this website have on basic science, one of their recent headlines was: "CDC admits flu vaccines don't work (which is why you need a new one every year)" I nearly spit out my coffee when I read that one. It's astounding that these people don't understand that new flu viruses arrive every single year and that the vaccines are manufactured to guard against the new strains. They also claim "multiple studies" show mercury causes autism, something even most anti-vaxxers are now moving on from.

5.) this site has become very stripped down, but it still directs you to "vaccine adverse events," which is a somewhat unmonitored reporting system that collected all reports of perceived vaccine-related illness or injury. I hope to have a post from someone far more knowledgable than me on the VAERS (Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System) set up by the U.S. government, and how it works, but long story short, someone can report (and apparently has) that their son got a vaccine and then turned into the Incredible Hulk, and that will be part of the VAERS reports; no causation is needed, just a report, even something overheard. I've read reports of a teenager receiving a vaccine, then thirty days later committing suicide, and it being part of VAERS because the reporting party wondered if the vaccine caused her suicide. Anyway,, despite the official-sounding name, is an anti-vaccine website.

6.) Vaccine Exchange: I honestly wouldn't have known about this site if the person running their Twitter account hadn't Tweeted us with some nonsense accusing us of not liking National Vaccine Information Center because we are cockroaches who scatter when light is shined on "the truth." (Because insults like this coming from  a site purporting to provide unbiased information about vaccines always inspires confidence in the site's usefulness.) Vaccine Exchange is just another site promoting an anti-vaccine agenda and using scary stories and misleading language to dupe new parents into buying into their stories. There's a lot of talk about "informed consent"--which has become shorthand for "antivax," because patients who choose to vaccinate their children are both informed (to the nth degree, actually) and have given their consent. You'll see stuff there about "Scientists Under Attack" and the fact that parents from West Virginia "have no right to decide what is injected into their children." If their overblown, meretricious prose doesn't tip you off, their poor web design might.

These are just a handful of the sites you might come across in a search on vaccines. Please take a look at the links on the right of this page for credible, science-based information on vaccines, as well as a few blogs from really smart people who do this infectious disease/immunology thing for a living. For a readable, accessible, but penetratingly intelligent--and accurate--account of the groups named above, please read "Yet Another Bad Day for the Anti-vax Movement in 2011" on the science blog Respectful Insolence.

I also want to point out one sad fact that I've had to come to grips with, and that is that the board, for all its attachment parenting, breastfeeding, and "natural mama" support, is mostly an anti-vax board. You'll see a lot of links to books by anti-vaccine activists, and lots of justification for their reasons for not vaccinating. And once in a while you will see a valiant soul trying to coax them into using science. But I would warn any new parent away from this particular resource, as the rampant misinformation and scare tactics you see in the comments are not worth the trade-off for breastfeeding tips and lists of paraben-free baby products. 

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