Bernadine Healy: Flirting with the anti-vaccine movement

There’s an old saying, so old that it’s devolved into cliché: Be careful what you wish for; you just might get it. I’m sure the vast majority of my readers, if not every last one of them, have heard this saying before. Certainly, it has a lot of truth to it. Sometimes it even applies to blogging. The most recent example that comes to mind occurred yesterday, when a commenter named David M. taunted me (or so he thought):

I know you all like to pick on actresses, college students and parents with sick kids, but how about taking a look at the column by Dr. Bernadine Healy on U.S. News. She used to run the NIH, the Red Cross and basically is smarter and has more credibility in medicine than anyone who has ever played with their widget on this website.

(Oh my goodness from a quick read, Dr. Healy thinks there needs to be more research on this issue, including vaccinated vs. unvaccinated. She must be a moron.)

Happy reading and gentlemen start the slime!

You know, I don’t read Dr. Healy’s blog for U.S. News & World Report. I probably wouldn’t have been aware of this article for at least a few more hours (by which time no doubt some of my readers would have eventually forwarded it to me). I might have been spared its nonsense for a while. But noooooo! You, David M., had to go and make me aware of it, and then my curiosity demanded that I go to it and actually read it.

Now there are a few minutes of my life I’ll never get back and probably a few thousand neurons I’ll never get back after reading her article.

I’ve said very little about it, but Bernadine Healy has been flirting with the antivaccine movement for quite some time. I never bothered much with her before because she was clearly trying to straddle both sides of the fence, making obligatory nods to the importance of vaccines while partially swallowing the antivaccine line laid down by Generation Rescue and other antivaccine groups and regurgitating. Partially. In doing so, she’s been known to call for a “vaccinated versus unvaccinated” study or argue that the Hannah Poling case is somehow evidence that vaccines cause autism, all the while waving her tenure as Director of the NIH as a talisman against criticism that she’s drifting into the antivaccine camp.

Unfortunately, Dr. Healy’s flirtation with the antivaccine movement has become more serious of late. Indeed, clearly J.B. Handley clearly views her as one of his own, given that Age of Autism named Healy its Person of the Year for 2008. If there’s one virtually completely reliable indication that a scientist or physician is well on the way to becoming an antivaccine crank (or has already become one), it’s being named Person of the Year by Age of Autism. It’s like the Nobel Prize, Oscars, Pulitzer Prizes, and Congressional Medal of Freedom for antivaccine crankery and autism quackery all rolled into one. Here’s a hint for Dr. Healy: Anyone whom J.B. Handley views as a hero has gone far, far down the antivaccine rabbit hole, whether she’s acknowledged it or not, whether she even realizes it or not. Whether Dr. Healy will ever manage to find her way out of it or if she even wants to find her way back to the surface and sunlight, I don’t know. What I do know is that her appearance with Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey was profoundly embarrassing. It’s hard to believe that a former Director of the NIH can be so clueless. Worse, she doesn’t even seem to be aware of the significance of this “award” or that she has become propaganda tool number two for the antivaccine movement. (Jenny McCarthy is propaganda tool number one.)

Of course, the antivaccine movement is thoroughly smitten with Dr. Healy, I first started to notice it last year as they invoked her name more and more frequently. Indeed, they do it so often that Kevin Leitch even coined a term for it: The Bernadine Healy Card. The most recent invocation of the Bernadine Healy card came yesterday in response to an article that Dr. Healy posted on her blog entitled The Vaccines-Autism War: Détente Needed. In it, we find Dr. Healy doing what she’s become known for lately, trying to sound like the voice of reason and remain above the fray, all the while laying down virtually all of the Generation Rescue antivaccine line while disingenuously proclaiming that she’s all for vaccines. In the meantime, she can’t even get the history of the organization that’s been praising her so much right:

When Larry King used the word debate to describe his April 3 program on vaccines and autism, he might just as well have said war; the airways smoked as activist Jenny McCarthy, mother of a child diagnosed with autism who blames vaccines, and her partner, Jim Carrey, faced off with two distinguished pediatricians representing the American Academy of Pediatrics. McCarthy and Carrey and two colleagues from the autism advocacy group she founded, Generation Rescue, took the AAP to task for its unwillingness to give at all in the controversy over vaccine safety and, while holding up a vaccine ad in its journal, accused the group of shilling for vaccine manufacturers.

I find it particularly amusing that Dr. Healy apparently doesn’t even know that J.B. Handley and his wife were the founders of Generation Rescue, not Jenny McCarthy. That’s got to burn J.B.. After all, these days, Generation Rescue has been reborn as “Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey’s Autism Organization,” with nary a hint that it was J.B. who built it from nothing to the colossus of antivaccine propaganda that it is today. I know I wouldn’t be too happy about being so totally forgotten if I were J.B., but perhaps he’s made of sterner stuff than I. He’s willing to swallow his massive ego in this one instance and by renaming his organisation let everyone seemingly forget that he created Generation Rescue, all in the name of hanging out with Jenny McCarthy and that lovely pile of money from celebrity fundraisers that she can bring in, the better to fund propaganda promoting the pseudoscience claiming that vaccines cause autism far and wide.

But I digress.

Note how, in a wonder of concern trolling, Dr. Healy blames the AAP and physicians, not the antivaccine movement, for the vitriolic tone of the vaccine-autism manufactroversy. Once again, there’s nary a word about the apocalyptic language about an “autism epidemic” and the “poisoning” of our children coming from the likes of J.B. Handley and Generation Rescue, or how the drug companies and the Dark Lord of Vaccination himself (to the antivaccine movement), Dr. Paul Offit, are plotting to pump your children full of mercury and other “toxins” all in the name of making obscene profits. But never mind. It’s all the fault of vaccine defenders, who are so, so mean to people like Jenny McCarthy, and poor Bernadine is just a level-headed reasonable doc caught in the crossfire:

The academy’s goal is to get every child in America–that’s 4 million born per year–vaccinated fully and on time in order to avoid perilous consequences such as a recent deadly outbreak of hemophilus influenza that could have been prevented with the Hib vaccine. The pediatricians took umbrage at the criticism and insisted that vaccine safety issues have been resolved to the fullest. I was there in the crossfire, arguing as I have many times that, yes, vaccines are eminently safe–and parents are raising legitimate concerns, yet unanswered. This controversy might be resolved if we can focus on a few big questions, with an open mind.

It depends on what you mean by “open mind.” To me, it sounds as though Dr. Healy’s calling for people to open their minds so much that their brains fall out, and I suggest that readers refer back to this video to review the fallacy of the appeal to be “open-minded.” The reason is that scientists have answered these questions before. Over and over and over and over again. Studies have been done. Over and over and over and over again. Yet, no matter how many times scientists try to answer the concerns of the antivaccine movement or do studies to test whether vaccines are associated with autism, it’s never, ever enough. The reason is that the antivaccine movement doesn’t like the answers, which invariably are that neither the mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be in vaccines nor the vaccines themselves have been shown to be associated or correlated with autism. They don’t like the answers because they do not confirm their fervid belief that vaccines cause autism. They do not want real science. They do not want to put the hypothesis that vaccines or mercury cause autism to scientifically rigorous tests. They want studies that confirm their beliefs. A better example of that I can’t think of than Sallie Bernard, whom the government foolishly asked to participate in a study of vaccines and neurodevelopmental disorders and who bolted from the study and started criticizing it after it did not show what she wanted it to show.

Most of the rest of Dr. Healy’s article is of the “Why can’t we all get along?” variety, parroting antivaccine talking points related to Hannah Poling, the “too many too soon” fallacy, and advocacy of a Dr. Sears-likedelayed vaccination schedule.” Here, however, is where Dr. Healy shows just how close her flirtation with the antivaccine movement has become:

First, are we overvaccinating our children? Vaccines are powerful stimulants of the immune system, which they must be to be effective. But as many of the autism activists have pointed out, American children are the most vaccinated on the planet. Generation Rescue and the World Health Organization both have compiled data that show the United States now gives more vaccines to all its children, and earlier in life, than the rest of the developed world: some 36 doses before our little ones hit kindergarten, with most crammed into the first 18 months of life. If you look at the best-performing countries in terms of infant and early-childhood mortality, the average number of doses is 18, with most of the Scandinavian countries, Japan, and Israel mandating just 11 to 12.

I had to reread that paragraph a couple of times to be sure it said what I thought it did, so surprised was I! That’s right. You read it right. Dr. Healy actually quoted the execrably incompetent and intellectually dishonest recent “study” by Generation Rescue purporting to show that nations with smaller numbers of mandated vaccines have lower autism prevalences. This study was utterly demolished by a “friend” of mine over at Science-Based Medicine and others. (Next she’ll be parroting the equally misinformation-laden new Generation Rescue website Fourteen Studies, which I hope to get to soon.) It’s at this point that I think I should formulate a new Internet law along the line of Godwin’s Law or Scopie’s Law. That’s why I hereby declare Orac’s Law:

In any discussion involving science or medicine–and especially vaccines–citing any material published by Generation Rescue or Age of Autism as a credible source loses you the argument immediatel …and gets you laughed right out of the room.

By Orac’s law, I hereby declare that Dr. Healy should be laughed out of the room.

It’s rather depressing to see a former Director of the NIH having allowed herself to become so closely allied with the antivaccine movement, for whatever reason. However, in retrospect, maybe I should have seen it coming. For example, the very first time I contemplated Dr. Healy and vaccines was around three or four years ago when she appeared on Bill Maher’s show. At the time, I observed that, rather than slapping Maher down for his nonsense about vaccines, germ theory denialism, and invoking “toxins” as the cause of all disease, Dr. Healy sat silently by other than an “Oh, dear” as Maher spouted the most ridiculous nonsense about vaccines. Then there were other indications. For instance, in 2005, Dr. Healy launched a broadside at Dr. Wallace Sampson for his criticism of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, bragging:

Instead, the Journal offers an adjacent opinion piece on the echinacea report by a former Stanford physician, Wallace Sampson, who has in the past called for abolishing NCCAM (yes, an enterprise I created in 1992 as director of NIH with pressure from Congress). Sampson uses the negative findings on echinacea to blast the alternative medicine movement as an errant social-medical trend. He dismisses herbal and nontraditional medical remedies as categorically implausible and unworthy of serious scientific support. Though alternative medicine does have a way of inspiring hot views among some of medicine’s finest, his commentary is less scientific analysis and more culture war. And it’s a war that, if won, would create a Catch-22, dooming the world of remedies that lack Establishment credentials to eternal ignorance and therefore discredit.

What a load of fetid dingo’s kidneys! It’s also a massive straw man argument over what skeptics like us who argue for the dismantling of NCCAM are actually arguing. Not only that, but she didn’t create NCCAM during her tenure, although the Office of Unconventional Medicine, which was renamed the Office of Alternative Medicine (OAM), was created during her time as NIH director. From that humble beginning, NCCAM grew to the $120+ million a year woo machine that it is now.

Dr. Healy followed up that article in 2006 with a snarky assault on evidence-based medicine as being an “attack on doctors” and “cookbook medicine.” Even more amazingly, in that article, she cited something even worse (if possible) than Generation Rescue “science.” That’s right. She cited the infamous Holmes et al commentary that likened evidence-based medicine to “microfascism,” an article upon which I had a grand old time heaping contempt when it first came out. In other words, Dr. Healy’s crank tendencies have been around a while, and they haven’t been secret, either. No doubt Generation Rescue likes Dr. Healy’s “brave maverick doctor” pose, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that, outside of cardiology, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

Generation Rescue is also as starstruck about Dr. Healy’s scientific credentials as it is over Jenny McCarthy’s D-list star power. J.B. Handley and the rest of the crew over at Age of Autism is always going on and on about her having been the Director of the NIH, and certainly on the surface it seems very impressive indeed. However, as EpiWonk points out, unlike virtually all of the other directors of the NIH, Dr. Healy is not and never was a scientific superstar. In fact, she has no scientific accomplishments of note and has been a career administrator. EpiWonk described her credentials quite well:

President George H. W. Bush set an unfortunate precedent in 1991 when he appointed Bernadine Healy as Director of the NIH. The appointment was purely political, based on Healy’s lifetime support of the Republican Party. Although many feminists were overjoyed at the time, Dr. Healy was hardly a scientist. She was a career administrator.

Let’s not forget that the National Institutes of Health have often been called the greatest scientific institution in the history of the world. Bernadine Healy was about as qualified for the job of NIH Director as Sarah Palin is to be President of the United States.

Ouch. That’s going to leave a mark.

I was living in Ohio in 1994, the year she challenged Mike DeWine for the Republican nomination to run for the Senate. Suffice it to say, I was not impressed. Neither were most Ohioans. She later went on to become President of the American Red Cross, but only lasted in the job a couple of years. In the aftermath of 9/11, she came under heavy criticism for using 9/11 to raise money for a “Liberty Fund,” with only a small fraction of the money actually going to the victims’ families and was forced to resign. She was also an advisor to The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition (TASSC), an organization later shown to have been funded by the Philip Morris corporation in order to attack scientific research that went against the interests of tobacco companies and other corporations.

I mention all of the above not as the primary criticisms of Bernadine Healy. I only mention them because the antivaccine movement, happy to have what they perceive as a heavy hitter on their side, touts Dr. Healy’s credentials at every turn, citing them and her support of many of their positions as evidence that they are not cranks.

Unfortunately, no one, regardless of credentials, is immune to degenerating into supporting pseudoscience. Remember, even Nobel Prize winners are not immune. After all, Nobel Prize winner Dr. Louis J. Ignarro is now shilling for nutritional supplements, and in his later years Linus Pauling convinced himself that high dose vitamin C could cure cancer, founding the woo known as Orthomolecular Medicine in the process. Compared to these two great scientists, both of whom fell into woo after winning the Nobel Prize, Dr. Healy’s scientific credentials are akin to a grade school science projects. Invoking her name as a legitimate argument from authority impresses no one who is familiar with her reputation as a scientist, which is currently none.