The Vaccine War

On Tuesday night PBS FRONTLINE aired an episode about the anti-vaccine movement entitled The Vaccine War (which, by the time you read this, should be available for online viewing in case you missed it). When I first heard that this show was going to air, I was a bit concerned. My concern, of course is what I’m always concerned about when journalists do a story about pseudoscience, be it the anti-vaccine movement, “intelligent design” creationism, various “alternative medicine” modalities, or whatever. We’ve written about such things right here on SBM on more than one occasion, be it Dr. Jay Gordon on The Doctors or Andrew Wakefield being interviewed by Matt Lauer. Although FRONTLINE has done a pretty good, science-based job on controversial topics, I felt some trepidation, particularly after seeing some of the promos for the show, even though it featured Dr. Paul Offit, and other physicians and scientists.

Fortunately, I needn’t have worried. The Vaccine War is not perfect. There are some definite flaws, but by and large it is a rare thing on TV: A science-based discussion of a pseudoscientific movement. True, the opening montage did bring back a bit of that anxiety that this was going to be a “tell both sides” bit of false balance in that it included J.B. Handley blathering and Jenny McCarthy spewing her same false dilemma of measles versus autism. (She’d choose the measles, of course.) I was able to forgive that, because it’s very clear that the producers were just setting up the story. The show then launched straight into a birth and a list of the vaccines that children get, with Melinda Wharton of the CDC and Paul Offit pointing out how much good vaccines do, how we no longer see diseases that once killed thousands or even milions.

Then it was straight to Ashland, OR and the woo, personified by a mother named Jennifer Margulis, a writer for that “natural” repository of woo Mothering Magazine. She wasted no time spewing nonsense about “natural immunity” versus vaccines, claiming that it is better than vaccine-induced immunity. (Yes, it may be more long-lasting, but it comes without the risk of actually getting the diesease.) Dr. Donna Bradshaw-Walters was then introduced, and she described how 28% of Ashland’s children are missing some or all of their vaccines, pointing out that it is only a matter of time before there is an outbreak there. (I wonder how far Ashland is from Portland. Our intrepid fellow SBM blogger Mark Crislip is in the Portland area somewhere.) It was refreshing to note that there are actual pro-vaccine parents in Ashland, one of whom predicted that it would get ugly if there were an outbreak in which vaccinated children started to get sick because of unvaccinated children forming a repository for disease that can spread to vaccinated children whose vaccines didn’t “take,” for whatever reason. The show then described the San Diego measles outbreak and how unvaccinated children are a vector for infection, even to the vaccinated, who are less likely to be infected but not immune, as no vaccine is 100% effective.

Next, there was a segment at Pfizer. This may not have been the best idea strategically, given how it feeds into the distrust of big pharma exhibited by the vaccine fearful, although the scientist interviewed, Dr. Emilio Emini, did a good job of pointing out how vaccines prevent disease. Still, right there, I could envision doubting parents becoming suspicous. Then, of course, there was Dr. Paul Offit, who, although he is the Dark Lord of Vaccination to the antivaccine movement, is nonetheless the one of the most effective provaccine voices. Happily, Offit makes no apologies for having gotten rich from a vaccine. He is enormously proud of it, as he should be. But what he’s proud of is not having gotten rich, but have invented a product that has saved thousands upon thousands of children’s lives. That is truly something to be proud of.

One thing The Vaccine War revealed that I didn’t know was that bioethicist Arthur Caplan had actually contracted polio in his youth. No wonder he is so effective when he argues for vaccines. Equally effective is a scene in which paramedics are being trained, part of their training being to watch videos of children with pertussis and rotavirus. The video of the child with pertussis is horrifying; the suffering of such children is incredible. This class even pointed out that chickenpox can actually be fatal, showing a child with staph sepsis in the pox lesions.

Unfortunately, at this point the aforementioned Margulis demonstrates her extreme ignorance by asking why we are still vaccinating for polio as polio has become more rare. This woman was truly irritating in her arrogance of ignorance. Worse, she kept popping up throughout the show, sadly enough. But that wasn’t enough. There had to be Barbara Loe Fisher, too, spewing her usual anti-vaccine line. Unfortunately, here’s where FRONTLINE fell down on the job. The show actually described BLF not just once, but multiple times, using terms like “vaccine watchdog” or “vaccine safety” advocate, rather than what she is, an anti-vaccine propagandist. Bad FRONTLINE!

Similarly, the interview with Jenny McCarthy was infuriating, as usual. I suppose I should be used to her smug anti-science attitude. Buried in McCarthy’s assault on science and reason, though, there was a rather interesting tidbit. However, you have to go to her complete online interview to find it:

How long after the MMR was that first seizure?

You know, a lot of people think, and probably from me saying in some interviews, that it was after the MMR I noticed changes.

I don’t think it was just the MMR shot that caused any kind of trigger with autism. I think it was a compilation of so many shots to a kid that obviously had some autoimmune disorders. So I would say maybe a couple of months, a month or so after the MMR, I started to notice some physical ailments such as constipation, rashes, eczema. That was like the first little sign. And then the train just kind of descended from there.

This is very different from the stories McCarthy was telling around the time she released her first book, and she even seems to be acknowledging it as she dances around a very simple question. Indeed, I remember McCarthy saying in interview after interview how she saw the “light go out of Evan’s eyes” soon after the shot. That’s why her story resonated with the anti-vaccine movement so strongly, as shown when anti-vaccination activist Ginger Taylor cited what Jenny McCarthy said in her 2007 interview with Oprah:

Jenny says even before Evan received his vaccines, she tried to talk to her pediatrician about it. “Right before his MMR shot, I said to the doctor, “I have a very bad feeling about this shot. This is the autism shot, isn’t it?’ And he said, ‘No, that is ridiculous. It is a mother’s desperate attempt to blame something,’ and he swore at me, and then the nurse gave [Evan] the shot,” she says. “And I remember going, ‘Oh, God, I hope he’s right.’ And soon thereafter-boom-the soul’s gone from his eyes.”

Notice how Jenny appears to have changed her story from its being the MMR to its being a gradual process due to too many vaccines. Truly, her story shifts more than the sands of the Sahara, or the waves of the ocean, or your favorite metaphor for something shifty and lacking substance.

Speaking of shifty and lacking substance, the first Jenny McCarthy segment ran right into an interview with J.B. Handley. There was really nothing new there in that J.B. claims that “tens of thousands” of parents tell him that their children were “never the same” after vaccines, combined with his simplistic mantra: Vaccines cause brain damage and autism is brain injury. Ergo, to him, vaccines cause autism. Of course, it is not really true that autism is “brain injury.” It is a difference in the brain, but there’s no good evidence that autism is primarily due to “brain injury,” although there’s all sorts of quackery out there that purports to treat “vaccine injury” to the brain.

Here’s another point where the FRONTLINE special dropped the ball a bit. The show immediately went into the MMR fear mongering provoked by Andre Wakefield. The problem is that J.B. Handley wasn’t really about MMR, at least not until recently. He was about mercury and thimerosal. Indeed, Generation Rescue until a couple of years ago proclaimed on its website that autism is a “misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning.” (And guess where that mercury exposure came from? That’s right, vaccines.) But the MMR has never had mercury in it, ever. In conflating these issues, FRONTLINE confused two related issues that are not really the same thing, particularly when it started showing a speech by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. at the Green Our Vaccines rally from two years ago. As someone who knows about the anti-vaccine movement and its history, this was irritating, and it is more than just a nit to pick.

That being said, I do like how, right after a segment in which Jenny McCarthy claims that scientists won’t study whether vaccines cause autism, the show immediately launched into a segment that demonstrated conclusively that that she is either mistaken or lying (take your pick). The issue has been studied extensively in multiple countries, and no link between vaccines and autism has been found. Thus, right after McCarthy made a claim, the claim was demolished totally. Moreover, FRONTLINE did a good job of explaining how correlation does not necessarily mean causation. Just because a diagnosis of autism is made soon after a vaccine does not necessarily mean the vaccine caused autism. It finished this middle part of the documentary by documenting the fall of Andrew Wakefield, in particular pointing out how some of the children in his studies had been referred through lawyers suing vaccine manufacturers.

The beauty of this segment is how FRONTLINE showed that, no matter how much evidence, with J.B. Handley saying, “I don’t give a fuck about what the MMR study said.” (Yes, he did use the F-word, although it was bleeped out and turned to “crap” in the online transcript. Stay classy, J.B.) This was rapidly followed by a demonstration of Barbara Loe Fisher shifting the goalposts asking for more epidemiological studies and basic science studies. It is, as Dr. Offit put it, a classic shifting of goalposts, with Jenny McCarthy blathering about her “mommy warriors” and how “Evan is her science.” In fact, I particularly liked how Dr. Offit explained exactly how the anti-vaccine movement is constantly shifting the goalposts in a way that a lay peson could understand.

Unfortunately, this segment depressed me, because it showed just how much science doesn’t matter in trying to persuade these parents and how the web perpetuates not just the old vaccine myths, but facilitate the spread of new ones. It demonstrates just how much the Internet’s “democratization” of knowledge devalues knowledge, expertise, and science. The forces of pseudoscience proliferate and infiltrate, and, quite frankly, those of us who promote science-based medicine are way behind the eight ball in trying to counter these messages. One thing I had no idea about was just how effective the Desiree Jennings story had influenced high school students not to vaccinate. Roughly half of one class who hadn’t taken the H1N1 vaccine said that the reason they didn’t take the vaccine was because they saw Desiree Jennings on YouTube. This makes me think, more than ever, that blogs such as this one and others are essential in tearing apart such bad information. The result of this information is people like the mothers in Ashland that I discussed last time who ask, “If vaccines work, who am I hurting by not vaccinating?”

The result was shown in the story of a baby who came down with pertussis and almost died. Her situtation was so bad that a chaplain was brought in for possible last rites.

Near the end of the show, there was presented a focus group of people who discussed vaccination. What was interesting is how much vaccination is viewed as a parental choice rather than a societal duty. This in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s completely consistent with the psyche many people in the U.S. and the principles of limited goverment and self-reliance. The problem is that this choice is being increasingly undermined by misinformation on the Internet and elsewhere in the media. The message of the anti-vaccine movement that the days of “paternalism” are over echoes very strongly with the whole “health freedom” movement. The problem with this “freedom” is that refusing vaccination endangers more than just the child of the parent making the choice. It endangers other children, vaccinated or unvaccinated. It’s very difficult for anyone to make a well-informed choice when most of the information that pops up when you search the Internet is from the anti-vaccine side.

In the end, I was mostly relieved by The Vaccine War. It was science-based, and it pulled no punches in asserting that there is no good scientific evidence that vaccines cause autism. True, it did confuse the issue of the MMR vaccine and thimerosal-containing vaccines, and that’s more than a minor mistake. It also failed to address the valid reasons why we vaccinated for hepatitis B to neonates. Worse, it was far too kind in its treatment of Barbara Loe Fisher, calling her organization, the National Vaccine Information Center a “vaccine safety” advocacy organization, when it is an anti-vaccine organization, plain and simple. It did a little better with Generation Rescue, showing a bit of the sheer insanity behind the organization and how, no matter how much evidence there is against its position, it never loses sight of its founding principle, namely that it’s absolutely, positively always the vaccines. Always. Those complaints aside, FRONTLINE did a far better job than I expected in deconstructing the anti-vaccine movement. It didn’t compromise on the science, although it may have compromised a bit in how it describes, for example, the NVIC and Generation Rescue.

Will The Vaccine War change minds? Maybe. There’s no way it’s going to change the minds of hard core antivaccinationists of J.B. Handley’s ilk. Almost nothing I can think of can. But it might–just might–reassure parents on the fence that all that horrible stuff they’re hearing on the radio, seeing on TV, and, above all, reading on the Internet about the evils of vaccines are not based in science. That’s actually quite an achievement.

ADDENDUM: There was a segment in which a pro-vaccination parent in Ashland was profiled. In a shot in which she was surfing the ‘net, guess what blog showed up?



Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

Leave a Comment (34) ↓

34 thoughts on “The Vaccine War

  1. Evvy Dense says:

    Jenny is not the only one changing her story.

    In 2006 JB Handley said “Like many parents trying to understand what happened to their child, we re-traced Jamison’s steps back to that fall and Christmas of 2003. The decline seems to have begun sometime in January, soon after the second flu shot. He began to play alone. His words stopped. He started running back and forth along walls and fences. For hours.”

    In 2010 JB Handley said “… My kid got six vaccines in one [day], and he regressed. You don’t have any science that can show me that the regression wasn’t triggered by the six vaccines. There is no real-world study that shows me that those six vaccines didn’t cause my son’s autism.”

  2. DREads says:

    Kudos for the brief exposure of SBM on Frontline. :)

    I’d have to agree with you that watching Jenny McCarthy was infuriating. I felt like my brain was close to exploding as she spouted off one nonsensical sentence after another. I have a big aversion for listening too long to nonsense. I couldn’t believe my ears when that one Ashland, OR parent said (paraphrasing) “let children get diseases they’ve been fighting off naturally for thousands of years.”

  3. BillyJoe says:

    “She’d choose autism, of course.”

    Of course she’d actually choose measles. ;)

    [ED NOTE: D’oh!]

  4. Franklin says:

    I felt like they let these characters get away with saying a bunch of crap without refuting a lot of it. I don’t remember specific instances and I only started watching about halfway through, but I felt like they gave Jenny McCarthy, J B Handley, and Wakefield a lot of latitude to just expound.

    I also felt they left out a huge factor – that the changing rates of autism diagnosis can nearly fully be accounted for by new methodology and surveillance, etc.

    I feel like the shifting goal posts piece could have been a lot better as well. They should have laid out side by side all the various “theories” posited through the years and how they have all been serially and conclusively shown to be false, and then describe the shifting goal posts. Instead it looked to me like someone making what could be seen by someone else as a reasonable request (more research, look at more factors), and my wife felt the same.

    They didn’t make clear that not only has there been no link shown between vaccines and autism, but that there is no reason to think there should be. That there is not even good plausibility behind these ideas. That all of this is based on a bed of lies. It really felt like they were presenting these folks as true watchdogs or whatever, not pseudoscientists immune to data.

    I felt empty afterward. Were this from Fox or CNN I would have been relieved by its approach, but being from PBS I was expecting way more.

  5. provaxmom says:

    I just watched it online last night. I also felt empty afterwards. I felt that even though they discredited many of their arguments, that JBH and JM got too much airtime. That in and of itself, to me, sends the message that they deserve some type of credibility.

    I wanted to smack that brown-haired mom from Oregon that kept popping up. She just oozed of that anti-vax arrogance and superiority that I’ve come to loathe.

    I also felt they didn’t do enough to really discredit Wakefield. Simply stating that the paper was retracted isn’t enough, imo. No mention of paying the kids, the birthday party, the statements of irresponsible behavior.

    I also was wishing that they had interviewed more pro-vax parents. Other than the pertussis baby parents and the one in the beginning (looking at SBM :) ) I felt there wasn’t enough said. The roundtable focus group appeared to be indifferent at best about getting their kids vax’d.

    Yes, it was better than much of what’s been out there. But still fell really short, imo.

  6. mxh says:

    “I also felt they left out a huge factor – that the changing rates of autism diagnosis can nearly fully be accounted for by new methodology and surveillance, etc. ”

    Yeah, Franklin, this is what I was looking for also. They could have also shown a bit more about how bad the diseases vaccines are preventing are and how things were for kids before vaccines.

    Overall, the media (even PBS) has been pushing false equivalency between two opinions in their various shows so much recently, that a more realistic look at a debate (even though it still gave too much to the crazies) was refreshing.

  7. David Gorski says:

    Kudos for the brief exposure of SBM on Frontline.

    Thanks. On the other hand, it was depressing to see that J.B. Handley is a Mac user…

  8. Scott says:

    Nah. It just shows that some things are so good even the loons recognize it.

  9. gaiainc says:

    Ashland is about 300 miles south of Portland. Its claim to fame (other the anti-vax nonsense which really doesn’t surprise me and makes my heart sick and now makes me wonder if I’ll bring my little one down there) is its excellent Shakespeare Festival. It is on the I-5 corridor, thus tends to be more left-leaning. In general the further one gets from I-5 and Portland the more right-leaning the state gets. It makes for some rather split-personality decisions around here.

    Given everything, FRONTLINE did pretty good. Yes, it could have been better, but it was a heck of a lot better than Matt Lauer. That may not be saying much, but it is saying something.

    I’m sorry, Dr. Gorski, but embedded in the second-to-last paragraph, there is a random URL.

  10. kvaeth says:

    Apparently there were interviews with Dr. Jay Gordon and Dr. Robert Sears that were not aired and also don’t appear on the web. So, Frontline may have may the decision late in the game as to how much “balance” to offer.

    Dr. Gordon posted on Huffpost in outrage.

    So glad they made the decision not to offer equal time and not to let the “it’s just too many, too soon” crowd spew their dangerous message. Those are the people that worry me the most because parents who are on the fence may be more likely to buy into this purportedly middle ground argument.

  11. Todd W. says:


    I’m sorry, Dr. Gorski, but embedded in the second-to-last paragraph, there is a random URL.

    Do you mean the link to another SBM article? If you scroll down a fair bit on that page, you’ll come to a section discussing the NVIC. So, it’s not entirely random.

  12. edgar says:


  13. BillyJoe says:

    Nimbin is Austraila’s Ashwood.
    A hippy commune that never grew up.

  14. Chris says:


    Apparently there were interviews with Dr. Jay Gordon and Dr. Robert Sears that were not aired and also don’t appear on the web.

    Bob Sears’ interview is online.

    I assume they did not include Jay Gordon (who was apparently with Ms. McCarthy during her interview) because he does not have a vaccine advice book on the market.

  15. anoopbal says:

    I just really feel that people really don’t know why science is important than their personal experiences and anecdotes. People who say that science is important and still keep going back to “my experiences” are just merely paying lip service when they science is important.

    This is the crux of the problem.

    Frontline or PBS should make a documentary clearly showing in layman’s terms why studies are important and why we shouldn’t believe in anecdotes, and what are the developments we made through scientific studies. Most folks even have no clue how drugs have to go through 3-4 trials before getting out in the market and how hundreds of drugs get rejected.

  16. Chris says:

    anoopbal, that has already been done, on NOVA (the program in my area that airs before Frontline). It involved James Randi. Then there was a Scientific American series with Alan Alda called “Scientific American Frontiers” that looked at the similar issues.

    The problem is folks filtering the information through their own sets of beliefs.

  17. psychability says:

    Parent groups show how commonly statistics are mistrusted. Many are more comfortable with the much bigger risk of their child getting a serious infectious disease than they are with the small vaccine risk. I suspect that many parents feel they would be devastated if they took action that harmed their child. Somehow we need to convince people that they are just as responsible for a decision not to act.

  18. Martin A. Lessem, J.D. says:

    There are some interesting things to consider here. Let me start out by disclosing a few things.

    1) I saw the PBS Special online last night.

    2) I am a Regulatory Attorney who does Risk Evaluation and Mitigation Strategies for a Pharmaceutical Company.

    3) The opinions I am expressing are not endorsed by my company in anyway, nor am I being compensated for them, and are mine alone.

    4) I am pro-vaccine. Having had the chicken pox as a kid (and a poison ivy reaction at the same time) I know how “fun” these diseases can be. (The only benefit was giving it to my sister)

    4) I prefer to not use the lawsuit as a weapon wielded without care.

    With all of that said, there are some interesting things to consider here. I am a bit of a left wing thinker and having come to the US from a European country where, at the time, you had no choice, you had to get the vaccines, I am kind of proud to say that I have received all of my jabs and regularly get the flu shot, including H1N1A.

    But what of those people who don’t? My girlfriend and I early on in our relationship had the “Vaccinate or not” discussion while contemplating possible children in the future, and I am very pleased that she agrees with the Science-Based Medicine community on this one. But I know this is not the case with every child. The one thing that deeply disturbed me about the PBS special was the lack of responsibility that the anti-vax parents took upon themselves for the spread of some of these diseases.

    Now, I do not know what I would do emotionally if a future child of mine caught one of these nasty bugs from another un-vaccinated child, but likely, I would blame the parents. What surprises me, especially as we know of cases where this has happened, is that states aren’t charging the parents of the unvaccinated children (those who have refused the vaccine not on grounds that their children genuinely cannot receive the vaccine, but rather that they just don’t want to contaminate their precious snowflake with the evils of the Pharmaceutical world) with culpable negligence.

    It would be an interesting case, and it would likely drive home the issue that you as a parent are responsible for the well-being of your community. The one thing that has always bothered me about the US is this lack of community responsibility. “Universal healthcare is bad because I don’t want to pay for yours, only mine.” Sentiments like that deeply bother me because it lacks the fundamental understanding that if I am uninsured, you’re already paying for my healthcare through your higher premiums and also because it lacks compassion. As I stated above, I prefer not to use the lawsuit as a weapon wielded without care, but there is a small part of me that would love to see a culpable negligence charge against parents of unvaccinated-by-choice children after their precious snowflake spreads a measles epidemic in their neighborhood, and someone elses child who was too young to get vaccinated dies from complications.

    Don’t get me wrong, I do not want anyone to die from a vaccine preventable disease. However, until vaccination rates rise and the herd immunity is restored, it will happen. And the tragic piece of the puzzle is that it is preventable (in a large majority of cases).

    Just my two cents on this issue.

    -Martin A. Lessem, J.D.

  19. korax11 says:

    I’m new here, but I have learned from you that the plural of anecdote is not data. Still, I thought I’d offer my experience of my brother as a footnote to the rise in diagnosis of autism. My brother was born in 1967, with an unusually large head. He was her 4th child, yet my mom needed surgery to repair the injury she suffered delivering him. She had 5 kids total – 4 early talkers, then the brother in question (I’ll call him X). X was a very late talker, and a very late walker (the other 4 also walked early.) When X did begin to talk, he tended to repeat the same words and phrases – e.g., we’d say “Where are we going?” and he’d respond brightly “Bank in town!” no matter where we were actually going. X banged his head for hours every day, mostly against walls, and much of the night in his sleep – on all fours, bang, bang, bang. My parents kept him in his crib for several years because they could hang pads around the bars to help cushion his head.

    Later these behaviors decreased – he became fluently verbal, but retained some slight obsessions. He ate a very restricted diet. For years there were only a few foods (all bland) he would eat without a fight. He also wanted to wear only certain clothes, and would sneak them out of the hamper and change just before leaving the house.

    A psychiatrist has told me that a child displaying these behaviors today would be diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. We were certainly luckier than many families – X was never violent, made eye contact, smiled, etc. Yet when I hear about all the new cases of autism, or the wonderful recoveries facilitated by gluten-free regimes, etc., I wonder how many would have recovered on their own, not unlike X.

  20. Prometheus says:

    Information in context. From the program “Vaccine Wars”:

    “Dr. Donna Bradshaw-Walters was then introduced, and she described how 28% of Ashland’s children are missing some or all of their vaccines…”

    From the City of Ashland’s website:

    “Oregon has one of the highest rates of autism in the United States, with the Oregon Department of Education reporting 1 in 98 students on the autism spectrum, and in Ashland, 1.1 percent of students have been diagnosed which is the highest rate in Jackson County.”


    So, a city with a high rate of vaccination refusal also happens to have one of the highest autism rates in a state that happens to have one of the highest autism rates in the country.


    At any rate, the example of Ashland, Oregon seems to refute the “too many, too soon” and “green our vaccines” hypotheses of vaccines-cause-autism.

    Somehow, I doubt that “Dr. Jay”, Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey or any of the rest will see that as a reason to change their minds. Religion is so resistant to reason.


  21. joseph449008 says:

    Yet when I hear about all the new cases of autism, or the wonderful recoveries facilitated by gluten-free regimes, etc., I wonder how many would have recovered on their own, not unlike X.

    Of course, when parents say an autistic child “recovered” they usually mean the child was not talking at first and then was talking, or something to that effect. Under this assumption, perhaps 50% of autistic people “recover” in a substantial way. The younger they are at diagnosis, the higher the likelihood of this type of “recovery.”

    Because of the discourse in the media, it seems to me that most people are under the impression that good outcomes in autism were unheard of until recently. The falsehood of this view is very clear if you simply become familiar with, say, Kanner et al. (1972) or Szatmari et al. (1989).

  22. tmac57 says:

    I was surprised and delighted to read that Frontline had done the piece on vaccines. I had sent a letter to the Frontline story editor on April 15th 2009, suggesting such a story, and linked them back to Science Based Medicine with the suggestion to view the Vaccines category, after I had just finished reading Dr Gorski’s two part post:’Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends, part II: Generation Rescue, the anti-vaccine propaganda machine, and “Fourteen Studies”’
    I also posted how to contact the Frontline story editor , with the hope that other SBM readers would write to them. Now, to be honest, I never did hear back from Frontline, but I have to wonder, did it make a difference?

  23. Nikolai says:

    I stumbled upon an older post of yours, “How do scientists become cranks…” thanks to stumbleupon (pun intended), and have fallen in love with this site. As a pre med student and a firm believer in self education I am very happy to see a much needed advocate of science and a voice of reason coming from somewhere else besides politicians, whom I can never take at face value, or random science articles that, although wonderful steps forward in their own right, just don’t have the ability to attract an audience.

    The issue with vaccines was always one that made me wonder, mostly wondering why the rest of society is still questioning and arguing over it. I think one issue may be just a lack of understanding of what a vaccine is in the first place. I shudder to think how many of these “mommy warriors” probably don’t even know a vaccine is the dead virus they intend to immunize against, let alone the history of medicine as it applies, or the factual science behind vaccination, and instead are lost in the notion of having power in the media. Parents often get lost in an arrogance, thinking that because they have a child they have a higher awareness of the world around them and should be listened to on every subject, because they know what’s best for their child, and apparently for everyone else. Jenny McCarthy has swindled these mothers, for whatever reason that may be, into believing her claims because she played the mommy card. She hit a nerve in every mother because she made them feel like they weren’t doing enough to protect their child. If these warriors wanted to actually protect the health of their child, they would educate themselves or, at the very least, trust the opinion of their doctor long before they listen to the likes of Jenny Mcarthy, who as I recall, made a career out of modeling for playboy and making terrible movies instead of going to medical school. Funny how the world works.

  24. BillyJoe says:


    “I shudder to think how many of these “mommy warriors” probably don’t even know a vaccine is the dead virus…”

    Actually, most are not killed viruses:
    Most are one of the following:

    Attenuated live virus: measles, mumps, rubella, varicella, yellow fever
    Subunits of viruses: Hepatitis B, HPV, influenza virus
    Attenuated bacteria: typhoid, tuberculosis,
    Inactivated bacterial toxins: tetanus, diptheria
    Conjugate vaccines: HIB

    Amongst the common vaccines, this leaves only hepatitis A and polio that are actually killed viruses

  25. trrll says:

    Jenny McCarthy has a long-history of publicity-seeking, and there seems little doubt that even if she had not had an autistic child, she would have found some way to keep herself in the public eye. And of course, the fact that she has a publicity-seeking personality does not necessarily make her beliefs any less sincere. But it is important to understand that in dealing with personal tragedy, there is some solace in having somebody to blame, even if it is oneself (and the parents who blame vaccination are in part blaming themselves, for it was they who allowed their child to be vaccinated). The idea that something like autism could happen for no particular reason can be even harder to face. Of course, they are preyed upon by individuals with a financial interest in encouraging antivax beliefs, such as Dr. Sears with his profitable line of books, and the many purveyors of quack therapies such as chelation and hyperbaric oxygen therapy.

  26. Nikolai says:


    Yes yes I am aware of that but I was making a point on the actual process of vaccination, not a lecture. Thanks for keeping me on my toes though haha!

  27. BillyJoe says:

    I just thought you ought to know, in case you didnt know, because, you know, you wouldn’t want an antivaxer catching out not knowing would you?

  28. Rogue Medic says:

    On the other hand, it was depressing to see that J.B. Handley is a Mac user…

    That is because Macs are not targeted by many viruses. This may be a metaphor for the way he looks at vaccination. His children would not be targeted by dangerous viruses, because the children are his children. He would never create defective children. Needing to vaccinate suggests that he created imperfect children. It is all about being better than the Joneses and their imperfect children.

    Not vaccinating children is just a way for a person with ridiculously flexible morals to feel superior to the Joneses and their imperfect children.

    Martin A. Lessem, J.D.,

    4) I prefer to not use the lawsuit as a weapon wielded without care.

    I appreciate that restraint, but this seems to be long overdue in the many cases of death by anti-vaccinationist.

    Wield away.

  29. Lorie Anderson says:

    “ADDENDUM: There was a segment in which a pro-vaccination parent in Ashland was profiled. In a shot in which she was surfing the ‘net, guess what blog showed up?”

    Hello, Dr. Gorski, et al at SBM. I am the “pro-vaccine” parent from Ashland Oregon interviewed by Frontline for their Vaccine War program. You should know that I not only pulled your site up on my screen for their “B-roll” taping, but I sang its praises several times to them. One of my strongest points during my interview involved a basic vaccine consumer question: How can a non-scientist layperson, a member of the general public, figure out what to believe when both sides are claiming they are backed by scientific data and studies and expert analyses? When it comes to vaccines, is it really a matter of picking your poison: risk vaccine side-effects or risk the diseases? (Like Jenny McCarthy suggests when she says she’ll take measles over autism.)

    I expressed to Frontline that the skeptical inquiry and science-based medicine movement provides a greatly needed counterbalance to anti-vaccinationist scare-mongering, notably on the web. I told them this movement has made me feel empowered. I no longer have to throw my hands into the air in confusion. I can see that when it comes to vaccines it’s not a matter of picking-your-poison, that the benefits of vaccination far, far outweigh the risks.

    I expressed that I believe there are many vaccine-wary people who may just need some scientific literacy to learn how to sort out the claims and how to recognize credible versus non-credible souces of information. Among other things, I learned that vaccine safety and efficacy studies are on the higher, gold standard end of the continuum of bad to good science, while those critical of vaccines tend to cite studies that are of poor quality and they continue to defend those that have been seriously discredited (e.g. Andrew Wakefield).

    The Frontline photographer took footage at my home of the cover of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine featuring Dr. Novella’s article on vaccines and autism published not too long ago. I suggested to Frontline that they interview some of the professionals from SBM, like you Dr. Gorski, and Dr. Novella, and Dr. Crislip. It was great to see that at least a flash of the SBM website survived the cuts. (My own vaccine related blog article, a critical analysis of the Desiree Jennings claims, didn’t survive the cuts: “A CHEERLEADER’S UNBELIEVABLE FLU VACCINE REACTION,” posted on, here, if you’re interested:

    Mostly, I just want to say THANKS! Keep up the good work; please know that you are making an impact on the public, as you have on me. We are very fortunate that you and others who publish on this blog are willing to share your time, energy, and expertise. I really can’t express how grateful I feel.

  30. Lorie – Thank you . Our impact is largely due to the many people who read our material and then are motivated to stand up for science and reason themselves. You just provided an excellent example of that.

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