Monday, December 1, 2014

Give on Giving Give Pro-Vax Voices a Boost!

Our friends at Voices for Vaccines work tirelessly to make sure the anti-vaccine movement does not succeed in presenting itself as the default "parent voice" heard in any immunization conversation. VFV instead garners the power of the more than ninety percent of parents who choose to protect their children, and the community, by vaccinating. Because of the grassroots nature of the organization, and the fact that VFV does not accept any pharmaceutical funding, it relies entirely on individual donations from members and others supportive of the mission.

Tomorrow, December 2, VFV is asking for our help to turn up the volume on pro-vaccine voices by gathering 1,000 donors who are willing to give to VFV as part of their Giving Tuesday drive.

Moms Who Vax is happy to support Voices for Vaccines and to take these simple steps to help spread the word to 1,000 potential donors for tomorrow!

1. Join the Facebook event and invite friends.

2. Visit VFV on Giving Tuesday and donate any amount, great or small.

3. Share this video widely with friends, family, and colleagues:

Thursday, November 20, 2014

"Consumer-Led Charity" Lobbying Your Legislator About Vaccines

Chances are this summer your state's congressmen and women received a letter from a "non-profit, consumer-led charity" urging them to take note of an "urgent need for reform."

That "charity" is National Vaccine Information Center. The "urgent need for reform" refers to state vaccine laws. 

For anyone unfamiliar with National Vaccine Information Center, it is the preeminent anti-vaccine organization in the United States, extremely well-funded by big donors such as Joseph Mercola. You may have seen their billboards in large cities across the country warning parents of the dangers of vaccines. The organization presents itself as a consumer advocacy group, and perhaps once upon a time it might have been. However, it has morphed, under the watch of Barbara Loe Fisher, into one of the most notorious anti-vaccine groups in the world, and it specializes in cloaking its true intentions with proclamations about "vaccine safety" and "personal choice," when its true mission is to make vaccination completely optional and to eliminate any state requirements making it harder for a parent to get her unvaccinated child into daycare, schools, afterschool programs, or any other public space where public health is of particular importance. 

One of the richer sentences from the letter NVIC sent congresspeople, and which I'm going to talk about briefly, is this one: "NVIC does not make vaccine use recommendations and supports the legal right for adults and parents of minor children to make informed vaccine choices." The latter half of this sentence is an exercise in redundancy, which, I suppose, they feel is worth spending millions of dollars on--informed consent is already assured and part of the medical experience of anyone seeking a vaccine. The first half is a falsehood. ThinkTwice Global Vaccine Institute, which advises against vaccination, lists NVIC as a trusted source of information.  Fisher's own blog betrays her true feelings about vaccines, bearing the motto: "If the State can tag, track down and force citizens against their will to be injected with biologicals of unknown toxicity today, there will be no limit on which individual freedoms the State can take away in the name of the greater good tomorrow."

And whenever states begin considering strengthening immunization rules, NVIC is right there, making a stink, usually in the name of "personal rights" and "informed consent."In fact, that kind of opposition to better immunization rules on a state level is a core purpose of the organization. Think about that for a minute: this is an organization that devotes its time and considerable capital to making it easier for unvaccinated children to mingle with the public in public spaces, such as schools and daycares.

I bring this up because over the summer, National Vaccine Information Center sent letters and a slickly produced "book" to congressmen and women in Washington, which NVIC termed a "legislative guide." That guide was titled "Reforming Vaccine Policy & Law." That guidebook indicates to the legislators who receive it that there is an "urgent need for reform of existing state vaccine laws." Translated, this means that NVIC feels that immunization requirements for children entering school, day cares, and for health professionals caring for the elderly and immunosupressed or immunocompromised (such as children with heart defects, anyone going through chemo, etc) are unacceptable. This, even though the vast majority of states have either a religious, medical, or conscientious objection clause in their rules. 

Personally, I find NVIC's hubris (or perhaps cluelessness?) fascinating: to launch a campaign to weaken immunization rules at a time when the country is grappling with outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, such as measles, mumps, and pertussis. There's no sign that the effort has worked, but the onus is on those of us who care about public health to make sure our legislators are informed about the true intentions of this "consumer-led charity" that warns of an impending crisis of personal liberty (i.e. the closing of certain personal exemption loopholes in some state immunization rules). It would take but a moment to write a quick e-mail to your local representative and senator just to say, hey, you may have received a letter and legislative guide this summer from a group purporting to be an "independent clearinghouse for information on infectious diseases and the science, policy, law, and ethics of vaccination" (a line straight out of NVIC's letter). However, I would like to clarify for you the organization's true position. A simple search of NVIC online or even on this blog will reveal countless examples of NVIC's attempts to dissuade parents from vaccinating. 

While I feel confident legislators grappling with immigration reform, budget issues, and the war on terror are probably not inclined to give NVIC's mailing a second thought, it's never good to let NVIC go unchallenged if you live in a state with pending changes to immunization rules. 

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?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Another Media Failure: Invisible Threat Edition

By Karen Ernst

Despite how feisty I can be, I really do have sympathy for journalists writing about immunization. The impulse to try to please everyone in order to avoid the firestorm must be very strong.

But some stories are clear-cut. Take the documentary Invisible Threat. This documentary was created by high school students as part of a school-sponsored extracurricular project, funded by a Rotary Club grant. When the project was announced two years ago, it was simply going to be about the immune system. But immediately anti-vaccine crusaders pounced, so the students decided--on their own--to take a deeper look into the issue, and the result was a remarkable 40-minute documentary about immunization and the controversies surrounding it.

The release of the film didn’t quell anti-vaccine protests of course. In fact, the protests got uglier with many anti-vaxxers claiming that the students hadn’t even produced the film, that it was instead some nefarious project funded and produced by Big Pharma.

Among those rallying against this high school film project was Becky Estepp, who claimed that she was contacted by CHSTV students two years before the project was conceived. Becky Estepp is the communications director at the Elizabeth Birt Center for Autism Law and Society, which hosts the annual AutismOne conference, and through AutismOne and their friends at Focus Autism, she launched a PR attack against these high school students. I just want to highlight again--these anti-vaxxers launched an attack against children.

The outcry in traditional media has been deafening. Attacking high school students is deplorable and out of bounds.

But hang on. I should qualify the above sentence. The outcry hasn’t been universal. One station local to the students aired the controversy, and then interviewed Becky Estepp, allowing her to make defamatory accusations and innuendos. The journalist left them in the piece unchallenged. The unchallenged accusations included: the children are Pharma Shills; they were pawns of the adults who really made the movie. The news station, the NBC affiliate in San Diego, aired these accusations with absolutely no qualification, fact-checking, or opportunity for the students or their advisors to respond.

That this is a failure of journalism is obvious. But the failure goes beyond false balance. Airing falsehoods and accusations like this is intimidation. The repercussions will affect every child who wants to make a school-sponsored film and gain national attention for such a monumental task. I should not have to explain why a television station giving a platform to an adult seeking to intimidate high school students is wrong.

I wrote an email to the journalist responsible for the piece, Candice Nguyen, as well as her General Manager, Dick Kelley.


Dear Ms. Nguyen,

I am writing to express concern about a recent story you aired about Carlsbard High School documentary, Invisible Threat:

As you noted at the beginning of the story, the students involved in this project were harassed by anti-vaccine activists trying to intimidate them out of doing the project. Once the project was complete, the campaign against these students continued.

So I was shocked that, in your story, you gave air time to one of the activists who worked hard to spread unsubstantiated innuendo in order to discredit these students. Furthermore, you left her unsubstantiated claims unanswered, even though each point she made was demonstrably exaggerated or false. In fact, the anti-vaccine activist you put in the story is a contributing editor of one of the organizations that has campaigned against the students and this film.

I want to emphasize that these students were in high school when they completed this school project. As with all extracurricular activities, these students had adult advisors. When a football team wins the state championship, no one asks why the coaches were there, too, and whether or not the championship was actually won by the adults. If people did raise those questions, no journalist would ever allow those detractors air time without proof of such allegations--especially allegations made against children.

I write a lot of reporters, and I understand the difficulties in reporting about immunization and in wanting to appeal to a very broad audience. However, your piece was the most egregious piece of journalism I have yet encountered because it gave airtime to someone who sought to poison the well against a group of children and had no proof of her allegations.

The only acceptable recourse is to air a full retraction of your segment. Please let me know when you plan on airing such a segment, and I will publicize far and wide your commitment to telling the truth and to protecting children against adult harassment and intimidation.

Karen Ernst
Voices for Vaccines

I sent this X number of days ago. I have yet to get a response.  I will update if I hear anything from the station. It might take many more voices writing in to them for them to understand that such bad reporting is a big deal. Here is the link to the piece, which is still available on the NBC San Diego website. The email addresses are above should you be moved to e-mail your thoughts on the piece.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

"I'm pretty sure everyone on your Facebook page has high-functioning Asperger's": The bigotry of the anti-vaccine movement

By Karen Ernst

This has actually been a great week. I’ve been buoyed by Maranda Dynda’s story of deconverting from anti-vaccine to pro-vaccine over at Voices for Vaccines. Her story reminded me that vaccine-hesitant parents are trying to do what is best for their children and that we can reach them.

But I don’t like to rest for too long after such fantastic wins, so I decided to ask Voices for Vaccines’ members what we could do better by sending out a survey. I knew that anti-vaccine activists would find it, and I knew that it would be easy to dismiss their rankings and their comments. I suspected nothing they would say could shock me. I was expecting the regular pharma-shill-propaganda-evil-reptilian comments that seem to populate the majority of the fervent anti-vaxxer’s vocabulary. I was not disappointed.

The comment about government propaganda was expected. The comment about VFV members being “sociopaths” is important. Keep that one in mind as we go.
I was particularly interested in this latter survey response, because of the sheer anger the respondent exhibited. After reading through her other comments, including one where she said she wanted “to ruin everything your organization touches,” such as a Colorado bill introduced last session that some of our parent-members supported through testimony at legislative hearings, I had a pretty good idea of who I was dealing with.

Voices for Vaccines was actually an important topic for some of the anti-vaxxers at those hearings, with one anti-vaxxer dedicating nearly all of her testimony at those hearings to poisoning the well against VFV and our members. It would seem that some of the anti-vaxxers are still upset that pro-vaccine parents would dare to become involved in this legislation. We have learned that parent vaccine advocates are deeply threatening to the anti-vaccine movement. In fact, the hearings and the bill were threatening enough to the anti-vaccine movement that an anti-vaccine lobbying group in Colorado, sponsored by the National Vaccine Information Center, became deeply involved.

[Editor's note: At this point in the post, we had included  a photograph from National Vaccine Information Center's Facebook page. Because we do not own rights to it, we have been asked by the Executive Director of NVIC to remove it. The photograph was included in this post to demonstrate how deeply involved NVIC was in the Colorado legislation, and how closely tied it is to anti-autistic language. However, we are sensitive to the fact that the people in the photo, as well as their children, do not want to be associated with this kind of bigotry, and we have removed the photo from this post at NVIC's request. We do hope they will work with us to rout out anti-autistic language and the use of "autism" as a slur.

One other note: while we have chosen to honor NVIC's request that we remove the photo, we urge NVIC to revisit its own photo-sharing and blog-sharing policies, as it has a track record of including photos of individuals associated with Voices for Vaccines, which they had no prior permission to use, such as Sundari Kraft, Paul Offit, Karen Ernst, and Dorit Reiss.]

Anyway, that an anti-vaccine advocate hates a parent-led pro-vaccine group is not shocking. It’s what we all expect, and it’s what we are all used to hearing. In fact, the unhinged nature of their comments is how the anti-vaccine movement helps us out.

But then she did shock me with this:

In case you misunderstand, this comment is meant to be an insult. A reasonable person might miss the insulting nature of this comment because who really cares if all of our members are autistic? To be honest, I’d be honored if our Facebook page were filled with autistic fans, because that would mean that we are doing something right for neurodiversity.

On the off chance that you don’t see the implied insult here, let’s say I replaced the words “has high functioning Asperger’s” with “is homosexual” or “is Jewish” or “is black.” Using such identifiers as a slur is bigoted.  It’s not funny; it’s just hateful. When we think about the harm the anti-vaccine movement causes, we think about the nearly 500 cases of measles spreading across the country, or nurses who refuse flu vaccines in the name of personal freedom. 

But there is another layer of harm--bigotry and hatred toward autistic people. The anti-vaccine movement relies on this deep fear and even hatred, and it permeates their messaging and their fear-mongering about vaccines. Once you peel back the layers, it's a little shocking to see just how blatant it can be.

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).

Picture 23.png

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.)

Picture 26.png

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.

Picture 24.png

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.