The price exacted by the anti-vaccine movement

As 2009 ended and 2010 began, I made a vow to myself to try to diversify the topics covered on this blog. Part of that vow was to try to avoid writing about vaccines and the anti-vaccine movement for more than a couple of days in a row. Unfortunately, even in the middle its very first full week, 2010 has already conspired to make a mockery of any “plans” I thought I might have for the blog, with a flurry of vaccine-related news items relevant to the pseudoscience that is the anti-vaccine movement coming fast and furious. Oh, well. I might as well just go with the flow and do what I do best–at least for now.

When I wrote the other day about the libel suit brought by the grand dame of the anti-vaccine movement, Barbara Loe Fisher, against the man whom they view as the Dark Lord of Vaccination or even Satan himself, Dr. Paul Offit, I mentioned that lawsuits against prominent defenders of vaccines could be a strategy to intimidate them into silence. Including the reporter who quoted Dr. Offit (Amy Wallace) and the publisher of the magazine in which the article appeared (Condé Nast, publisher of WIRED) also struck me as a rather transparent attempt to discourage reporters and publishers from writing about the anti-vaccine movement.

The reason I made this latter conclusion is that 2009 was in general a great year for the media’s waking up and examining the anti-vaccine movement in a much less positive light. Whether it was Amy Wallace’s article that provoked Barbara Loe Fisher’s lawsuit, Brian Deer’s expose of Andrew Wakefield’s scientific fraud, or Trine Tsouderos’ expose of Mark and David Geier, Dr. Mayer Eisenstein, and the autism/a> biomed movement, 2009 marked the year that the mainstream press started to realize that the harm the anti-vaccine movement is doing to public health is actually the story, not scorned parents bucking the system in a Lorenzo’s Oil frenzy of crushing existing paradigms no matter what science and medicine think about the issue of whether vaccines cause autism. This is a very good thing indeed.

And the anti-vaccine movement does not like it at all.

Another excellent example of such journalism appeared in, of all places, USA Today, yesterday, starting this way:

Brendalee Flint did everything she could to keep her baby safe. She nourished her with breast milk; she gave her all the routine vaccines. But Flint never realized how much her daughter’s health would depend on the actions of her friends, neighbors and even strangers.

By 15 months old, Flint’s daughter, Julieanna Metcalf, was walking, exploring and even saying her first few words. Then one day in the bath, while fighting what seemed like an ordinary stomach bug, Julieanna became so weak and floppy that she couldn’t hold up her head.

“She couldn’t say ‘Help me,’ but her eyes were begging me to do something,” says Flint, 35.

It turns out that Julieanna had severe Haemophilus influenzae type b meningitis. She was one of the victims of the recent Hib outbreak in Minnesota, which was linked to pockets of unvaccinated children. She still has serious sequalae from her bout of meningitis that will likely be with her for the rest of her life. Because Julieanna has a rare immune deficiency, vaccines don’t work in her; she depends on herd immunity:

That worries moms such as Flint, who learned that her daughter has a rare immune deficiency only after she contracted Hib. Because Julieanna doesn’t respond to vaccines, she depends on other parents to keep germs out of circulation by vaccinating their kids, a phenomenon called “herd immunity.”

Then there was this mother, whose daughter died of invasive pneumococcal disease:

The most shocking part of this video is that the dead girl’s doctor didn’t believe much in vaccinations and in fact encouraged her parents not to vaccinate. My recommendation: Sue the doctor for malpractice. Given that I’m one of the “tribe” and have just as intense a loathing for malpractice attorneys and malpractice suits as any other physician, you can be sure that if I say that about another doctor I really mean it and really consider the offense to be egregious. Any pediatrician who discourages recommended vaccines is very likely committing malpractice. In this case, a girl died as a result; so there is demonstrable injury as a result of this physician’s negligence. Sue his ass. Maybe if more parents started doing this when their children suffer or die from vaccine-preventable illness because their doctors discouraged vaccination fewer doctors would be so cavalier about such advice not to vaccinate.

Worse, the rationale for not vaccinating can border on seriously burning stupid:

Parents such as Rebecca Estepp of San Diego decided not to vaccinate her younger son after his older brother was diagnosed with autism. When measles broke out in Southern California in 2008, “I had to decide, ‘Would I rather have him get the measles or risk having him get autism like his brother did?’ ” says Estepp, national policy manager for Talk About Curing Autism. “My husband and I decided we’d rather he get measles.”

Because of fear of a vaccine that is, by any measure, incredibly safe, Estepp decided that she’d put her her son at extreme risk of contracting measles, which, contrary to the misconception, is not a benign disease. Worse, she did it because she believed in a myth, a lie promulgated by the anti-vaccine movement, namely that the MMR vaccine causes autism. It is not a choice of “measles versus autism.” It is a choice of preventing measles at a very low risk versus the risk of getting the measles and its potential complications.

The USA Today article then goes on to describe how pockets of low vaccine uptake are placing us at risk for outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases. Certainly, they are, and, unlike in the past, when areas of low vaccination rates tended to be associated more with poverty and poor access to health care, these days pockets of low vaccine uptake tend to be more associated with upper middle classed “worried” parents who have never seen the ravages that vaccine-preventable infectious disease can cause. Protected by herd immunity, they see only risks and no benefits from vaccines, and these risks are exaggerated by the anti-vaccine movement to the level where even rational parents might take pause. But what if herd immunity fails?

The USA Today article is, I hope, a continuation of the trend begun in the mainstream media in 2009, namely telling it like it is when it comes to the anti-vaccine movement and pointing out how (1) it is not based on any science and (2) its adherents are frightening parents into not vaccinating, a decision that can result in death.

I can only hope that, in April (which is Autism Awareness Month, a month I’ve come to dread every year now) dim and dimmer Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey start showing up on Larry King Live to hawk the latest propaganda angle of pseudostudy from Generation Rescue, when vaccine “skeptics” such as Dr. Jay Gordon or Dr. Bob Sears start repeating the brainless “too many too soon” mantra, when J.B. Handley slimes his way onto various TV shows to trumpet his usual nonsense, there will be real skeptical journalists there instead of lapdogs to challenge them on the facts.

Your children’s health is at stake.