Improving Our Response to Anti-Vaccine Sentiment

As Vaccine Awareness Week draws to a close, I thought it might be instructive to step back and look at the tactics, impact, and successes of the anti-vaccine movement. Yesterday, Orac questioned the best approach to counter the anti-vaccine movement. With today’s post, I’ll summarize two pertinent papers on the effectiveness of their tactics, and suggest some possible approaches.

There’s overwhelming evidence that vaccines have provided us with tremendous health benefits. Smallpox has been eliminated (except, apparently, for homeopathic nosodes), polio is almost gone, and occurrences of diseases like measles or rubella are now rare. In use for over a century, they are a public health triumph: diseases that terrified us a generation ago are now never seen.  Epidemiologic evidence demonstrates that vaccines have a remarkable safety record, and are exceptionally cost-effective interventions. Yet in spite of this, concerns about vaccine safety seemingly continue to mount.  And as we see time and time again, when vaccination levels drop, diseases reappear. So what’s driving anti-vaccine sentiment, and why is it successful?

The H1N1 pandemic of 2009/10 is now about a year past its peak, and is instructive as a case study on communication on  vaccine safety and efficacy. Remember the H1N1 vaccine? Judging by the anti-vaccine rhetoric of just last year, by now we should all have been rounded up by the army, given forced injections, and if the vaccine didn’t kill us right away, or make us walk backwards, we’d be immunosupressed (from the aluminum adjuvant), or have Gulf War Syndrome (from the squalene). And not only did it not work, it doubled our odds of getting H1N1.  All we needed was vitamin D and a proprietary supplement formula to avoid the flu, they said.


Posted in: Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Homeopathic Vaccines.

It is probably of no surprise to anyone who has read my blog entries, I am a proponent of vaccines.  They give the most bang for the infection prevention buck, and many of the childhood illnesses covered by the vaccine are now so rare that many physicians, even in Infectious Diseases, have never taken care of cases of measles or mumps or German measles, etc.  It is  a remarkable triumph of modern medicine.  Of course, the decline of infectious diseases is always multifactorial: good nutrition, understanding of diseases epidemiology, and good hygiene all have contributed to the decline of many diseases, vaccine preventable or not,  The application of science has resulted in an almost inconceivable decline in contagions that have killed and injured millions.

It is always better to prevent an illness than to have to treat it.  An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Even those who erroneously believe that standard vaccines are not effective and/or dangerous understand that it is better to prevent illness with some sort vaccine.  But rather than use an effective vaccine, they choose, instead, other options.  Like homeopathic vaccines. (more…)

Posted in: Homeopathy, Vaccines

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Vaccine Wars: the NCCAM Drops the Ball

If you go to the website of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), you’ll find that one of its self-identified roles is to “provide information about CAM.” NCCAM Director Josephine Briggs is proud to assert that the website fulfills this expectation. As many readers will recall, three of your bloggers visited the NCCAM last April, after having received an invitation from Dr. Briggs. We differed from her in our opinion of the website: one of our suggestions was that the NCCAM could do a better job providing American citizens with useful and accurate information about “CAM.”

We cited, among several examples, the website offering little response to the dangerous problem of widespread misinformation about childhood immunizations. As Dr. Novella subsequently reported, it seemed that we’d scored a point on that one:

…Dr. Briggs did agree that anti-vaccine sentiments are common in the world of CAM and that the NCCAM can do more to combat this. Information countering anti-vaccine propaganda would be a welcome addition to the NCCAM site.

In anticipation of SBM’s Vaccine Awareness Week, I decided to find out whether such a welcome addition has come to fruition. The short answer: nope.


Posted in: Chiropractic, Health Fraud, Homeopathy, Legal, Medical Ethics, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media

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Why science reporters should do their homework

One of the most significant medical advancements of the last few decades has been the use of cholesterol-lowering medications called statins.  These drugs, when used properly, have been shown over and over to lower the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and death.  But like all drugs, they have many effects, both those we like (preventing heart attacks) and those we don’t (in this case, rare liver and muscle problems); the latter we call “side-effects”.  Studies done on drugs before they hit the market can identify common side-effects, but it’s not until many more people are exposed for a long period of time that rare side-effects show up.

A recent Scientific American article wondered if one of these rare side-effects could be memory problems.  At first glance, the idea seems pretty improbable, but the SI article takes some sketchy anecdotes and runs with the idea, managing to cobble together an interesting hypothesis: (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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Skeptically Speaking with Dr. Gorski

I have been very, very remiss about this, but I totally forgot to pimp my appearance a week and a half ago on Skeptically Speaking. Part of the reason was that I tend to be rather shy about interviews, and part of the reason was that I just plain forgot. Given our having dedicated this week to the discussion of vaccines on Science-Based Medicine, I thought it would be the perfect time to point out to Skeptically Speaking #82 Vaccines.

Posted in: Announcements, Vaccines

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A Shot in the Dark Revisited

Most shots in the dark miss. Scientists learn this early in their career – most of the guesses we make as to how things work will turn out to be wrong. In fact, a proper understanding of science requires thorough knowledge of all the ways in which humans deceive themselves into believing things that are not true. In fact, most shots in well-lit conditions (informed by prior knowledge) miss. Ignoring prior knowledge results in chances that are all but hopeless.

Therefore the title of the 1985 book DPT: A Shot in the Dark by Harris Coulter and Barbara Loe Fisher, is perhaps unintentionally ironic. The book sparked the first modern popular concern about the risk of neurological damage from vaccines, in this case the pertussis vaccine that is part of the DTP vaccine.Fisher, of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) still promotes the book and its content, even though the science has progressed in the last 25 years.

At the time the whole cell pertussis vaccine was part of the diptheria, tetanus, pertussis vaccine (DTwP). This combination has been largely replaced with the DTaP vaccine, which contains an acellular pertussis component. This change was partly due to safety issues, rare cases of neurological disease (seizures and encephalopathy) following DTwP being given. DTaP has a lower incidence of fever, seizures, and other side effects.


Posted in: Vaccines

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Journal Club Debunks Anti-Vaccine Myths

American Family Physician, the journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians, has a feature called AFP Journal Club, where physicians analyze a journal article that either involves a hot topic affecting family physicians or busts a commonly held medical myth. In the September 15, 2010 issue they discussed “Vaccines and autism: a tale of shifting hypotheses,” by Gerber and Offit, published in Clinical Infectious Diseases in 2009.  

The article presented convincing evidence to debunk 3 myths:

  1. MMR causes autism.
  2. Thimerosal (mercury) causes autism.
  3. Simultaneous administration of multiple vaccines overwhelms and weakens the immune system, triggering autism in a susceptible host.


Posted in: Vaccines

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What does “anti-vaccine” really mean?

We write a lot about vaccines here at Science-Based Medicine. Indeed, as I write this, I note that there are 155 posts under the Vaccines category, with this post to make it 156. This is third only to Science and Medicine (which is such a vague, generic category that I’ve been seriously tempted to get rid of it, anyway) and Science and the Media. There is no doubt that vaccines represent one of the most common topics that we cover here on SBM, and with good reason. That good reason is that, compared to virtually any other modality used in the world of SBM, vaccines are under the most persistent attack from a vocal group of people, who, either because they mistakenly believe that vaccines caused their children’s autism, because they don’t like being told what to do by The Man, because they think that “natural” is always better to the point of thinking that it’s better to get a vaccine-preventable disease in order to achieve immunity than to vaccinate against it, or because a combination of some or all of the above plus other reasons, are anti-vaccine.

“Anti-vaccine.” We regularly throw that word around here at SBM — and, most of the time, with good reason. Many skeptics and defenders of SBM also throw that word around, again with good reason most of the time. There really is a shocking amount of anti-vaccine sentiment out there. But what does “anti-vaccine” really mean? What is “anti-vaccine”? Who is “anti-vaccine”?

Given that this is my first post for SBM’s self-declared Vaccine Awareness Week, proposed to counter Barbara Loe Fisher’s National Vaccine Information Center’s and Joe Mercola’s proposal that November 1-6 be designated “Vaccine Awareness Week” for the purpose of posting all sorts of pseudoscience and misinformation about “vaccine injury” and how dangerous vaccines supposedly are, we decided to try to coopt the concept for the purpose of countering the pseudoscience promoted by the anti-vaccine movement. To kick things off, I thought it would be a good idea to pontificate a bit on the topic of how to identify an anti-vaxer. What makes an anti-vaxer different from people who are simply skeptical of vaccines or skeptical of specific vaccines (for instance, the HPV vaccine)? I don’t pretend to have the complete answer, which is why I hope we’ll have a vigorous discussion in the comments.

Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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Corporate pharma ethics and you

Although I’m one of the few non-clinicians writing here at SBM, I think about clinical trials a great deal – especially this week.

First, our colleague, Dr. David Gorski, had a superb analysis and highly-commented post on The Atlantic story by David H. Freedman about the work of John Ioannadis – more accurately, on Freedman’s misinterpretation of Ioannadis’s work and Dr. Gorski’s comments. While too rich to distill to one line, Dr. Gorski’s post struck me in that we who study the scientific basis of medicine actually change our minds when new data become available. That is a GoodThing – I want my physician to guide my care based on the latest data that challenges or proves incorrect previously held assumptions. However, this concept is not well-appreciated in a society that speaks in absolutes (broadly, not just with regard to medicine), expecting benefits with no assumption of risk or sacrifice in reaping those benefits. Indeed, the fact that we change our minds, evolving and refining disease prevention and treatment approaches, is how science and medicine move forward.

Then, I had the opportunity to hear an excellent talk on pharmaceutical bioethics by Ross E. McKinney, Jr., MD, Director of the Trent Center for Humanities, Bioethics, and History of Medicine at Duke University School of Medicine. McKinney is a pediatrics infectious disease specialist who led and published landmark Phase I and Phase II trials zidovudine (AZT) for pediatric AIDS patients. While he continues working in this realm, McKinney also studies clinical research ethics, conflicts of interest, and informed consent. I was absolutely fascinated and refreshed by hearing from an expert who while describing and citing major ethical lapses in our system of drug development is also willing to propose solutions and do the hard thinking required for us to maximize the benefits we derive from pharmaceuticals while minimizing unethical behavior.


Posted in: Clinical Trials, Pharmaceuticals

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Fatigued by a Fake Disease

One of the realities of being a pharmacist is that we’re easily accessible. There’s no appointment necessary for consultation and advice at the pharmacy counter. Questions range from “Does this look infected?” (Yes) to “What should I do about this chest pain?” to more routine questions about conditions that can easily be self-treated. Part of the pharmacist’s role is triage — advising on conditions that can be self-managed, and making medical referrals when warranted. Among the most common questions I receive are related to stress and fatigue. Energy levels are are down, and patients want advice, and solutions. Some want a “quick fix,” believing that the right combination of B-vitamins are all that stand between them and unlimited energy. Others may ask if prescription drugs or caffeine tablets could help. Evaluating vague symptoms is a challenge. Many of us have busy lifestyles, and don’t get the sleep and exercise we need. We may compromise our diets in the interest of time and convenience. With some simple questions I might make a few basic lifestyle recommendations, talk about the evidence supporting supplements, and suggest physician follow-up if symptoms persist. Fatigue and stress may be part of life, but they’re also symptoms of serious medical conditions. But they can be hard to treat because they’re non-specific and may not be easily distinguishable from the fatigue of, well, life.

This same vague collection of symptoms is called something entirely different in the alternative health world. It’s branded “adrenal fatigue,” an invented condition that’s widely embraced as real among alternative health providers. There’s no evidence that adrenal fatigue actually exists. The public education arm of the Endocrine Society, representing 14,000 endocrinologists, recently issued the following advisory:

“Adrenal fatigue” is not a real medical condition. There are no scientific facts to support the theory that long-term mental, emotional, or physical stress drains the adrenal glands and causes many common symptoms.

Unequivocal words. But facts about adrenal fatigue neatly illustrate why a science-based approach is a consumer’s best protection against being diagnosed with a fake disease. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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