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Reviewing Andrew Wakefield’s VAXXED: Antivaccine propaganda at its most pernicious

VAXXED

I’ve finally seen it. I’ve finally seen Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree’s “documentary” VAXXED: From Cover-up to Catastrophe, and I didn’t even have to pay to see it! Now, having watched Wakefield and Bigtree’s “masterpiece,” I can quite confidently say that it’s every bit as accurate and balanced a picture of vaccine benefits and risks as Eric Merola’s two movies about the quack Stanislaw Burzynski and his Second Opinion: Laetrile at Sloan-Kettering are about cancer and cancer research, The Beautiful Truth is about the Gerson protocol for cancer, Simply Raw: Reversing Diabetes in 30 Days is about diet and diabetes, Expelled! No Intelligence Allowed is about evolution, and The Greater Good is about…vaccines! Of course, based on what I knew of the story, saw of the VAXXED trailer (which deceptively edited together statements by William Thompson), and have discussed about the efforts of Andrew Wakefield, Del Bigtree, and Polly Tommey to use VAXXED as a tool in a publicity campaign to try to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about vaccines using the “CDC whistleblowerconspiracy theory (about which a primer can be found here), I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was actually surprised (slightly) at the manipulative depths to which this film sinks.

On the plus side, its production values are better than those Eric Merola’s films (although I, with no experience, could probably make a film with better production values than Merola), but that just makes it somewhat more effective propaganda. In my review and discussion of the movie and its claims, I will discuss the claims made by Bigtree and Wakefield as well as the movie as a movie. Unfortunately, there is so much misinformation in this 91 minute documentary that I will only be able to hit the “high” points without going far, far beyond even a Gorski level of logorrhea in this post. Worse, there is a considerable amount of dishonest framing, in which actual facts and events are presented in a deceptive manner to tell a distorted narrative. Before that, though, let’s meet the key players.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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How low antivaccine “warriors” will go: Of Facebook harassment reporting algorithm abuse and publicly attacking a 12 year old boy

NOTE: Anyone who has seen several derogatory articles about me on the web and is curious about what the real story is, please read this and this.
Marco Arturo

I was going to write about something else this week, but events over the last several days led me to change my mind. The first was the reaction of a pseudonymous antivaccine “warrior” going by the ‘nym Levi Quackenboss to a viral video posted by a 12-year-old boy named Marco Arturo. The second was my learning that other antivaccine “warriors” had resumed abusing the Facebook reporting algorithm to get pro-science advocates supporting vaccines banned from Facebook for periods up to 30 days and thereby silence them. I wrote about this latter tactic a couple of years ago, when the Australian antivaccine group the Australian Vaccination Network (AVN), or AVN (which was forced to rename itself the Australian Vaccination Skeptics Network in 2014), started abusing Facebook’s algorithm for reporting harassment and abuse in order to get members of the skeptic group Stop the Australian Vaccination Network (SAVN) temporary Facebook bans. It’s a tactic that has continued, with a fresh batch of temporary bans issued by Facebook in response to bogus complaints over the last few days.

I’ve frequently written about how often the preferred tactic of antivaccinationists and others pushing medical pseudoscience is not to answer criticism with evidence, science, and rational argument, but rather to respond with attacks and attempts to intimidate and silence. The reason, of course, is that they do not have any of that to support their beliefs. At some level, I suspect that many of them know it. Be that as it may, those of us who lament how few physicians and scientists, even those sympathetic to scientific skepticism, are willing to publicly speak out and call the quacks to task know that the consequences of doing so are often quite unpleasant: Online attacks, poisoning of one’s Google reputation, attempts to get one banned from Facebook, and, of course, the antivaccinationists’ favorite: Harassment through one’s job by complaining to one’s bosses. To illustrate these hazards, I’ll start with the story of Marco Arturo, before moving on to a more organized effort. (If you read my not-so-super-secret other blog, you’ll have heard of Marco’s story before, but I’ll summarize here as well.) Then I’ll update you on how Facebook continues to allow its reporting algorithms to be abused to silence pro-vaccine voices there. I’ll finish up with examples of what we at SBM have experienced and some thoughts on what can be done. (more…)

Posted in: Computers & Internet, Health Fraud, Vaccines

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Does your antivax doctor have another agenda?

A witch placing a scorpion into a potSeveral weeks back, I wrote a piece in praise of Michigan’s Fresh Air Camp’s decision to admit only properly vaccinated children. Predictably, there was a bit of a backlash from people who, despite the obvious benefits, oppose vaccinations.

I can’t fault a parent for the decisions they make for their kids. We all work from the gut when it comes to our children, and this can make us see risks incorrectly. But I cannot forgive people who should know better. Medical professionals should all support basic public health such as vaccination, just as they should support healthy eating, physical activity, and clean water. I feel strongly enough about this that I have called for pulling the licenses of doctors who oppose vaccination.

As usual when I write about vaccines, I got plenty of hate mail and disturbing blog comments – no biggie. That’s part of standing up for the truth. What really disturbed me was a local doctor, here in the same community that the camps serve, coming out publicly against the new policy. When a medical professional weighs in on a matter of public health, people listen. (more…)

Posted in: Science and Medicine, Vaccines

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Vaxxed and the Tribeca Film Festival: How Robert De Niro learned the hard way about Andrew Wakefield and the antivaccine movement

Robert De Niro made a massive mistake last week.

Robert De Niro made a massive mistake last week. Fortunately, he started to make up for it.

One of the disadvantages of only doing one blog post a week here at Science-Based Medicine is that sometimes stuff happens at too fast a pace for me. If something happens on Tuesday, by the time Sunday rolls around and it’s time for me to do my weekly post, it’s often old news, too old to bother with. That’s why it’s a good thing that I have my not-so-super-secret other blog, where I can keep up with such events. On the other hand, the advantage of a once-a-week posting schedule is that there are times I can look back at a story that evolved over the last week and, instead of blogging about it in daily chunks, I can put together a post that tells the whole story and puts it in context. Something like that happened last week. The beauty of it is that I played a major role in bringing the story to public consciousness, followed the story as it evolved, and now can provide a fairly complete recounting. Or so I hope.

First, however, let’s take advantage of another good thing about waiting to blog about a story, namely getting to see the reactions of quacks to what happened. No one can do it better than everybody’s favorite all around quack, crank, and all-purpose conspiracy theorist Mike Adams, who greeted me yesterday morning with this headline: VAXXED film pulled from Robert De Niro’s Tribeca Film Festival following totalitarian censorship demands from pharma-linked vaccine pushers and media science trolls. What on earth is Adams talking about, you might wonder? In case you haven’t been following the news, here’s a link to the New York Times story on the same incident: “Robert De Niro Pulls Anti-Vaccine Documentary From Tribeca Film Festival.” Basically, the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival selected an antivaccine documentary directed by Andrew Wakefield for screening and then thought better of it after a major uproar and a whole boatload of bad press.

I’ll deal with Adams’ post a bit later because it’s so hilariously nutty but also because it is basically the propaganda line that antivaccinationists are putting on this PR debacle brought about by Andrew Wakefield and Robert De Niro. (I never thought I’d use those two names in the same sentence.) Let’s go back a week and see what I mean. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Are the recommended childhood vaccine schedules evidence-based?

The vaccine schedule: Safe and efficacious.

The vaccine schedule: Safe and efficacious.

We write about vaccines a lot here at SBM, and for a very good reason. Of all the medical interventions devised by the brains of humans, arguably vaccines have saved more lives and prevented more disability than any other medical treatment. When it comes to infectious disease, vaccination is the ultimate in preventive medicine, at least for diseases for which vaccines can be developed. We also know that when vaccination rates fall, it opens the door for diseases once controlled to come roaring back. We saw this phenomenon with the measles a year ago in the Disneyland measles outbreak. We’ve seen it around the country, with measles outbreaks occurring in areas where a lot of antivaccine and vaccine-averse parents live. Perhaps the most spectacular example occurred in the UK, where prior to Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent case series in The Lancet that was used to link the MMR vaccine to autism, measles was under control; it came roaring back as MMR uptake plummeted in the wake of the publicity his research engendered. By 2008, ten years after Wakefield’s case series was published, measles was again endemic in the UK. Measles outbreaks flourished. Although MMR uptake is improving again in the UK, there remains a reservoir of unvaccinated children aged 10-16 who can transmit the virus.

Thanks, Andy.

Fortunately, Wakefield has been relegated to sharing the stage with crop circle chasers, New World Order conspiracy theorists, sovereign citizen cranks, and other antivaccine cranks like Sherry Tenpenny. Unfortunately, the damage that he has done lives on and has metastasized all over the developed world. Given the persistence of the antivaccine movement, which fuels concerns about vaccines in parents who are not themselves antivaccine but are predisposed to the antivaccine message because they distrust government and/or big pharma or have a world view that overvalues “naturalness,” I was quite interested in an article that appeared in The BMJ last week. Basically, it asked the question “Is the timing of recommended childhood vaccines evidence based?
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Epidemiology, Public Health, Vaccines

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What naturopaths say to each other when they think no one’s listening, part 2

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When last I visited this topic, I started out by making a simple observation, namely by quoting John Wooden’s famous adage, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.” What I was referring to was a private discussion forum for naturopaths known as Naturopathic Chat, or NatChat for short, and how a leak from the group had revealed the sort of pure quackery that naturopaths talk about when they are among themselves and think that no one else is listening. Basically, NatChat revealed just how quacky naturopaths are, based on the advice they gave each other about patients and their general discussions of what passes for “naturopathic medicine.” I found examples of naturopaths recommending intravenous peroxide, homeopathic drainage therapy, black salve (for a huge protruding breast cancer), and even ozone to treat a postsurgical J-pouch abscess that clearly required the attention of a colorectal surgeon. After naturopaths on NatChat became widely aware that someone on the list had revealed discussions on the list, apparently the moderators, instead of moving to another platform, stayed on Yahoo! Groups.

None of what I’ve described in this brief recap of my first post about NatChat should be surprising to regular readers of this blog, who would also know that we are not particularly fond of naturopaths, even the nice ones, who might be perfectly fine as people. Of course, it is naturopathy we don’t like, mainly because it is, as I like to describe it, a cornucopia of quackery based on prescientific vitalism mixed with a Chinese restaurant menu “one from column A, two from column B” approach to picking quackery and pseudoscience to apply to patients. Indeed, whenever the topic of naturopathy comes up, I like to refer readers to Scott Gavura’s excellent recurring series “Naturopathy vs. Science,” which has included editions such as the Facts Edition, Prenatal Vitamins, Vaccination Edition, Allergy Edition, Diabetes Edition, Autism Edition, Fake Diseases, and, of course, the Infertility Edition. We’ve also described just what happens when a naturopath tries to treat a real disease like whooping cough. The results are, to put it very mildly, not pretty.

Of course, as I’ve pointed out, any “discipline” that counts homeopathy as an integral part of it, as naturopathy does to the point of requiring many hours of homeopathy instruction in naturopathy school and including it as part of its licensing examination, cannot ever be considered to be science-based, and this blog is, after all, Science-based Medicine. Not surprisingly, we oppose any licensing or expansion of the scope of practice of naturopaths, because, as we’ve explained time and time again, naturopathy is pseudoscience and quackery.

Interestingly, what led the Reddit user and naturopathy critic NaturoWhat (who inspired my earlier post regarding NatChat) to give me the heads up as to what’s going on in NatChat again is an incident on the discussion board involving a naturopath who featured in the previous edition of my coverage of NatChat, Eric Yarnell. He’s a naturopath who tried to point out to his fellow naturopaths how black salve is a really nasty treatment because of the way it fries normal tissue just as badly as it fries abnormal tissue. He also appears to be one of those rarest of beasts, a seemingly pro-vaccine naturopath. I say “seemingly,” because whenever I encounter a naturopath billing herself as pro-vaccine (e.g., Erika Krumbeck), a closer examination of his or her views almost always reveals he or she believes in at least some antivaccine misinformation. Surprisingly, Yarnell is the naturopath who comes closest to actually being pro-vaccine that I’ve seen.
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Posted in: Naturopathy, Vaccines

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HPV Vaccine Safety and Acceptance

HPV vaccine smallThe public fight over the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine is still raging. The debate partly reflects the underlying logic of health prevention measures, which is essentially a statistical game of risk vs benefit. Unfortunately thrown into the mix are ideological opponents to vaccines who are distorting the facts at every turn.

Notice that I said this was a “public” fight, because it is not a serious scientific dispute. There is sufficient evidence to confidently conclude that the HPV vaccines currently available are safe and effective. All medical interventions will contain some risk, it is never zero, but vaccines in general, and the HPV vaccine specifically, have minimal risks and clearly prevent disease.

In addition there is a social angle to the HPV vaccine in that it is given to children to prevent a sexually transmitted disease.

The science of the HPV vaccine

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Posted in: Public Health, Vaccines

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Michigan HB 5126: Who thought it was a good idea to make it easier for parents to obtain nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates and harder for local county health officials to do their jobs?

The Michigan House of Representatives: Not the sharpest knives in the drawer.

The Michigan House of Representatives: Not the brightest bulbs on the Christmas tree.

We have a problem with antivaccinationists here in Michigan. It’s a problem that’s been going on a long time that I first started paying attention to in a big way a few years ago when we started seeing pertussis outbreaks again due to low vaccine uptake. It’s a problem that’s persisted as last year we suffered from outbreaks of pertussis and measles, again because of pockets of low vaccine uptake. And what is the reason for these pockets of low vaccine uptake? Well, consistent with what we already know, namely that the risk of pertussis outbreaks is elevated in states where exemptions to school vaccine mandates are easier to get, it’s because our state is one of the worst in the country when it comes to nonmedical exemptions to vaccines. Indeed:

Michigan has one of the highest vaccine-waiver rates for kindergartners in the country, three times the national median, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the number of kindergartners getting vaccine waivers is growing. In five years, it’s increased 23 percent, the CDC says.

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Posted in: Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Vaccines

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How not to debate a “pro-vaxer”

When people debating against vaccines win, children lose.

When people debating against vaccines win, children lose.

To say that the relationship that antivaccine activists have with science and fact is a tenuous, twisted one is a major understatement. Despite mountains of science that says otherwise, antivaccinationists still cling to the three core tenets of their faith, namely that (1) vaccines are ineffective (or at least nowhere near as effective as health officials claim; (2) vaccines are dangerous, causing autism, autoimmune disease, neurodevelopmental disorders, diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome, and a syndrome that is misdiagnosed as shaken baby syndrome; and, of course, (3) the Truth (capital-T, of course!) is being covered up by a nefarious combination of big pharma, the medical profession, and the government (in the US, primarily the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which works with pediatricians to produce the recommended schedule of vaccines). Because vaccine rejectors don’t have science on their side, they have to resort strategies common to science denialists like those who reject the scientific consensus about evolution or human-caused global climate change. These fallacious strategies include (but are not limited to) selective citation of evidence (i.e., cherry picking), misrepresentation and logical fallacies, impossible expectations about what science can deliver (e.g., vaccine denialists expecting 100% efficacy and 100% safety from vaccines or cancer quacks expecting 100% cure rates and no side effects from chemotherapy); fake experts (e.g., Andrew Wakefield); and, of course, conspiracy theories. Add to that appeals to personal freedom and “health choiceüber alles and painting any form of vaccine mandate as incipient totalitarianism, with those rejecting vaccines taking on the role of the Jews in Hitler’s Germany, and you have a pretty good idea of the sorts of arguments antivaccine activists resort to.

Not surprisingly, even the most diehard antivaccine advocate can get frustrated. After all, it must be very frustrating to have one’s posterior handed to one in arguments on the science of vaccines time and time again. Of course, for that purpose, like most science denialists, antivaccine activists have the Internet. In particular, they’ve taken full advantage of Facebook, and, more recently, Twitter. One such online gathering place is the public group known as Vaccine Resistance Movement (VRM). I encourage pro-science advocates to peruse this group, just to see that when I refer to people being anti-vaccine, there is no doubt that that is what they are. It was there that I found a rather telling document posted, for the benefit of antivaccine advocates everywhere.
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Vaccines

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The horrible consequences of seeking “natural” immunity: Naturopathy and Whooping Cough

Whooping cough isn't pretty

This is what whooping cough looks like. It sounds even worse.

If there’s one area of “alternative” medicine that saddens (and angers) me, it’s the antivaccine movement. Most alternative medicine only risks harm to the user. But antivaccinationists threaten public health. Their actions can harm the most vulnerable in our society – often children, and others who depend on the herd immunity that vaccination provides. After my last few naturopathy vs. science posts I thought I’d take a bit of a break with another subject. However, last week ex-naturopath (and friend of the blog) Britt Hermes flagged a post from a naturopath that stunned me. Here was antivaccinationism and naturopathy, all rolled into a blog post about three children with a parent that doesn’t vaccinate. Heather Dexter, who claims to be a “Board Certified Naturopathic Doctor” in Michigan, blogs at likemindedmamas.com. She recently used her blog to describe, in astonishing, horrific, gut-wrenching detail, how she let three of her children suffer with whooping cough without seeking proper medical attention. The post was pulled down after a few days, but has recently reappeared with some modifications. (The original post, which I am quoting from below, has been archived and can be found here or here). I strongly encourage you to read the entire post in its entirety. Because amazingly, not only did Heather Dexter let her three children suffer through weeks of pain with whooping cough, she also subjected them repeatedly to invasive (and useless) alternative medicine. Yet she claims to have no regrets. (more…)

Posted in: Naturopathy, Vaccines

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