Monday, July 15, 2013

Shillin' Ain't Easy (or Profitable)

By Karen Ernst

World's Worst Couch
I usually find the “Pharma Shill” gambit funny.  It makes me chuckle because I am usually accused of being a so-called pharma shill while sitting on my couch.

Let me introduce you to my couch.  It is nearly twelve years old and has served us well.  It used to have two reclining parts, but those parts stopped working a few years ago.  Because it has been used as a trampoline, some of the springs are broken and there’s a deep indent where one would sit.  I fill in the indent with a Patrick Star pillow, pictured at right.  I won’t give you all the gory details about my couch, but suffice it to say, three boys and one dog have lived with this couch, and they have sometimes been ill.

As you can see, my accomodations and interior design are both very glamorous and clearly part of the "Pharma Shill" lifestyle. 

It is seated in this couch that I have read accusations from anti-vaccine activists and parents that I am being paid by pharmaceutical companies to write comments on Facebook.  I’ve also read that the first-person pro-vax parent stories that appear on both the Moms Who Vax blog and Voices for Vaccine’s Parents Who Vax blog are written on the sly by Ashley Shelby and myself, both of whom have, apparently, “deep ties to pharma lobbyists in Minnesota.”  This would be news, of course, to the very real people who have contributed to our blog over the years. And it's news to Ashley and me, who have yet to even meet a pharma lobbyist in Minnesota.

For the record, neither Ashley nor I have ever received a penny from pharmaceutical companies. Not through Voices for Vaccines (which does not accept contributions from pharmaceutical companies or from the government), not through Moms Who Vax (which, unlike NVIC, accepts no advertising and which has an annual yearly budget of $0), and not for commenting on Facebook. The latter accusation strikes me as particularly bizarre. After all, vaccines account for less than 2% of pharmaceutical companies’ profits. Why would they waste any of that money paying people to write comments on social media, especially when more than 90% of us vaccinate our children already?  It defies logic. But then again, logic has never been the anti-vaxxer's strong suit.

And so they persist, even in the face of the facts.  For the past few weeks, the Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice has grown obsessed with Voices for Vaccines, reposting nearly every link we post on
their own Facebook page.  Their Facebook page has also been home to suppositions about our fundraising--false assumptions, which I corrected back in May.  I replied and was able to get them to issue a semi-apology and (later, not pictured) a partial retraction.

However, they were so attached to tantalizing idea of Voices for Vaccines employing me as a "Pharma Shill" that they promote the idea, even after apologizing for having made a false statement.

It was all just annoying and eyeroll-inducing, even funny at times, until Ashley and I decided to take on Jenny McCarthy. Apparently, former playmates are sacred cows in anti-vax land.  As of this writing, our Facebook post has 1,980 comments, many of which from anti-vaxxers who are sure that the petition to keep Jenny McCarthy off TV’s The View is some sort of Big Pharma plot.  

And again, people were certain that we were Big Pharma Shills.  Ginger Taylor, whose writings include disparaging Seth Mnookin for being a long-recovered heroin addict, dubbed us “Voices of Vaccines,” I’m assuming because she thinks we are in the thrall of pharmaceutical companies (though her little syntactical sleight of hand is actually hilarious: I'd love to hear the sound of a vaccine's voice).  Then, my favorite mansplainer, Robert Schecter, also made an appearance to ask on as many threads as possible: "Who funds voices for vaccines?"

When I told him Voices for Vaccines is funded by individual small donations, he persisted, not believing my answers and making up his own.

Marsha McClelland sent out an Action Alert asking for more anti-vaccine comments on the thread.  She herself came to the thread many times to tell us her case was closed and to declare victory, but before doing so, she let us know how Pharma hires people to “pose as having sick children due to non vaccination.”  

(The “there are usually underlying reasons” portion of her comment is particularly troubling because I don’t believe that any child deserves to die from a VPD, whether or not that child has an underlying condition.)  She also tagged Erwin Alber.

Erwin Alber is an interesting case.  He as a New Zealander who runs the “Vaccination Information Network” where he promotes the idea that vaccines cause homosexuality and where he falls prey to his own confirmation bias and purposely fabricated graphs.  One of his favorite ploys is comparing vaccination to Nazi experimentation.  Reasonable Hank has dubbed him “The World’s Worst Person” for visiting a whooping cough memorial page to “educate” grieving parents about the horrors of vaccination. There’s no way to overstate how deeply disturbing Erwin Alber's tactics are.

And so I was dismayed when Erwin took Ginger’s bait and appeared on the Voices for Vaccines page, telling us all that we were Nazis, pharma shills, delusional, and insane.  Fortunately for me,
he stole one of VFV’s photos
, so I was able to ban him with clear conscience.

At that point, the strangest anti-vax infestation ensued.  It began on Erwin’s page, where several people “knew” all about the Big Pharma money connection to VFV.

They came to the VFV thread, per Erwin’s instructions, and they didn’t realize that they shouldn’t also spread their crazy there.  

Anti-vaccinationists are quite convinced that people only advocate for immunizations because they are being paid by Big Pharma (which apparently is too stingy to buy me a new couch.)

The irony, of course, is that people to profit directly from others being afraid of immunizations, and so have a substantial interest in keeping that fear alive. Homeopaths, such as the
“Meat Sweats” homeopath Ashley and I heard at the Minnesota Immunization Rule hearing, sell “cures” to “vaccine injuries” that are too vague to even be given a diagnosis.  In other words, they make money selling plain water to people who are frightened by the internet into believing that an illness was caused by vaccines.  Dr. Mercola lives in a multi-million dollar mansion, a showy display of the wealth he’s accumulated by selling completely unregulated supplements, tanning beds, juicers (even though he tells people not to drink fruit juice), and countless other items to people afraid of immunizations.  Dr. Sherri Tenpenny makes money from selling t-shirts and access to articles she did not write to people who are scared by the falsehoods about vaccines she promotes on her DVDs, which she also sells. 

Worst of all are people like Andrew Wakefield and Keri Rivera who sell unproven and sometimes dangerous “cures” for autism to parents who are frightened into believing that vaccines “damaged” their children and made them autistic.  Lastly, Jenny McCarthy.  Let’s face it:  Jenny McCarthy’s career was in the tank before she began protests to “Green Our Vaccines.”

People who profit from fear of immunization (not necessarily those listed above) come together through organizations like the
Natural Health Freedom Coalition and the Council for Responsible Nutrition who hire lawyers and lobbyists to ensure that the laws regulating their products and practices are as lax as possible and to fight against any attempt in states to tighten vaccine exemption laws (or in the case of Minnesota, simply modernizing its rule).

The casual anti-vaccine parent has been convinced by these forces that they are collectively the Davids fighting the Goliath of Big Pharma, and that anyone who wants to dispute anti-vaccine misinformation or make their communities safe from preventable disease outbreaks is paid by Goliath.  But that’s not really true at all--none of it is.  Sure, Big Pharma is Big.  However, Big Alterna is big business, too, and they are well-organized.  They take advantage of people’s fears, their inability or unwillingness to properly perform a risk analysis, and their fears of having their freedom limited.  Anti-vaccine parents like to believe they are enlightened and informed because they’ve done their “research,” but really, they’ve just bought into the lies of a well-oiled machine.

Fortunately, for pro-vaccine parents, we don’t need Big Pharma to organize us.  We can organize ourselves and follow the science independent of Big Pharma.
But we do need pharmaceutical companies to make our vaccines.  They are not evil for making a profit (albeit small) from the work they do, and the work they do is important.  Without them, millions of children would die each year.  Big Alterna can’t touch that.

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