“SmartVax”: The Orwellian repackaging of old anti-vaccine tropes

It appears that while TAM9 was dominating all my extracurricular, non-job-related attention, with my having to get ready to give a talk, I failed to notice another thing besides the placebo/asthma paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine last Thursday. But fear not. If it’s important (to me, at least, and hopefully to you too), I’ll eventually see it, allowing me to toss off a jaunty, “Better late than never!” and then launch into a topic, even if I’m a week late. So it is this time around, except that the topic is so big that it might require more than one post, perhaps spread out over this blog and that of my “good buddy.” The reason is that taking on the fallacies in logic and dissecting all the misinformation, cherry-picking of studies, and dubious assertions all in one post would probably be too much, even for one of my characteristic bouts of vaccine-soaked blogorrhea. Or perhaps I could set the stage here and then do a more definitive deconstruction later this week or early next week.

So what popped up while I was gone? Well, I was reminded of it again because the merry band of anti-vaccine loons at the Generation Rescue propaganda blog Age of Autism decided to shill for it again yesterday, having shilled for it a week ago. The website, run by the anti-vaccine group SafeMinds is called SmartVax.

I really do have to hand it to the anti-vaccine movement in general and SafeMinds in particular. Whatever the deficiencies in their knowledge of science, anti-vaccine advocates sure can spin the Orwellian language, where up is down, left is right, and vaccines are alway, always, always the cause of autism. I think that, in this post, I will take the bird’s eye view–an overview, if you will–of the SmartVax site and then in a future post, either here or under my not-so-super-secret alter-ego, deconstruct the claims in detail, because there are some doozies there that appear superficially plausible on the surface (as all good pseudoscience does) but fail massively upon more detailed inspection.

The first stroke of propaganda genius about this site is the term “SmartVax” itself. Yes, it’s painfully obvious. After all, who wants to be in favor of “DumbVax” or “StupidVax,” although I fervently hope in vain that some day a vaccine against dumb and stupid will one day be invented? Yet that’s not the propaganda genius, at least not in and of itself. What elevates this dreck into the realm of brilliant P.R. is how the anti-vaccine loons contrast “SmartVax” with what they call “MaxVax.” Let’s take a look, shall we? It begins with a massive bit of revisionist history:

In the early 1900’s, scientists coined the terms “allergy” and “anaphylaxis” to describe vaccine-injuries; at present, the mechanism by which vaccines cause injury is still not scientifically understood. Historically, the vaccine-injury risk has caused vaccine manufacturers and public health officials to be conservative when recommending new vaccines or administration of vaccines at earlier ages. However, vaccines proved effective against some deadly diseases and by the 1970’s a “maximize vaccination” philosophy arose that viewed vaccines as always having more benefits than risks.

Uh, no. The assertion that scientists coined the terms “allergy” and “anaphylaxis” to describe vaccine injuries is a massive distortion, with one minor grain of truth. Let’s start with the term anaphylaxis, the coining of which had nothing to do with childhood vaccines. Rather, it derived from the studies of Charles Richet and Paul Portier over 100 years ago of the toxin produced by a jellyfish, the Portuguese Man of War. During an oceanographic expedition, Richet and Portier managed to isolate the toxin and thought that they might be able to use the toxin in order to obtain protection, or, as they called it, “prophylaxis” in order to protect swimmers who came into contact with the jellyfish. When they returned to France, they didn’t have access to the jellyfish anymore; so they turned their attention to the toxin produced by the sea anemone Anemona sulcata, the “sea nettle”, which could be harvested in large quantities from the Mediterranean Sea. They injected venom from the sea nettle at various doses into dogs. The dogs that survived were allowed to recover and then reinjected. To their surprise, subsequent small doses of the toxin produced a dramatic illness that resulted in difficulty in breathing followed by rapid decline and death. Richet and Portier called this reaction “anaphylaxis,” meaning “against protection.” They concluded correctly that the immune system becomes sensitized to the toxin and that re-exposure to the same substance could result in a severe reaction, a discovery for which Richet won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1913. Vaccine injury is not exactly the same thing as what the SmartVax website is referring to. After all, Richet and Portier were using large doses of toxin and then reinjecting the dogs that survived.

Neither is allergy, which actually was not coined to describe vaccine “injuries.” Rather, the term “allergy” was first coined in 1906 by Clemens von Pirquet. A year earlier, von Pirquet studied the describe adverse reactions of children who were given repeated shots of horse serum to fight infection. (Here’s a hint: Injecting horse serum to fight infection is not the same thing as being vaccinated.) The following year, the term allergy was proposed to explain this unexpected “changed reactivity” in response to exposure to the horse serum. Later, in 1907 Pirquet characterized the same effect due to repeated doses of the smallpox vaccine–after he had coined the term for other observations.

After that little paragraph of revisionist history follows more revisionist history that consists largely of confusing correlation with causation (the “autism epidemic” that isn’t), claiming that the anti-vaccine groups that arose during the 1980s advocated a “smarter” vaccine schedule, and pointing out the 1986 law that created the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program without mentioning that anti-vaccine grande dame Barbara Loe Fisher was a driving force behind the passage of that law. Anti-vaccine groups only turned on the law when they didn’t like how the Vaccine Court tried to use actual science to determine what does and doesn’t constitute a true vaccine injury. It didn’t matter that the Vaccine Court bent over backwards to give parents the benefit of the doubt and that it paid most legal fees fo its petitioners, whether they won or lost. When the Vaccine Court didn’t accept the pseudoscientific view that vaccine injuries cause autism, the anti-vaccine movement turned on it and now generally rant that the requirement that vaccine injury claims go through this special court has allowed vaccine manufacturers to avoid any accountability. Never mind that the FDA and FTC regulate them and that the regulations covering pharmaceutical products (like vaccines) require considerably testing and oversight.

The revisionist history here doesn’t exactly make me confident in anything else on this website, but let’s move on. Here is where we get to the meat of the matter; this is what SafeMinds describes as the difference between what it calls the “SmartVax” and the “MaxVax” philosophies:

SmartVax and Max-Vax are both “pro-vaccine” philosophies, in that both philosophies consider vaccines an important component in an overall children’s health program, but SmartVax differs from Max-Vax in important aspects of safety, research, and policy. The SmartVax philosophy is all about being smart with vaccinations: don’t over-use them, don’t bypass good science, understand the risks, and ensure that the risks are not hidden from the public.

Bullshit.

Does SafeMinds really think we’re stupid enough to believe that its philosophy is in any way “pro-vaccine”? Think about it this way? Have you ever seen SafeMinds advocate the use of any vaccine? No. What you see instead are claims that vaccines are unsafe or haven’t been adequately tested based on misinterpretation and cherry picking of studies, fear mongering, and rejection of studies failing to find a link between vaccines and autism almost before they are published. Just type the word “SafeMinds” into the search box in the upper left hand corner of this page, and you’ll see copious evidence of the anti-vaccine activism of SafeMinds, including, most recently, its purchasing public service announcement time in AMC Theaters for its anti-vaccine message. That’s hardly about “not bypassing good science,” which is exactly what SafeMinds does every time it trashes studies that fail to find a link between vaccines and autism.

Basically, SafeMinds contrasts its “SmartVax” (i.e., its anti-vaccine policy in disguise) with “MaxVax” (what it labels the current vaccine schedule) by two “pillars”:

  1. Evidence-Based Scientific Research (go where the evidence leads)
  2. Appropriate Checks-and-Balances on Vaccine Policy

Pillar one is based on a delusion coupled with a massive straw man:

The first rule of SmartVax is the pursuit of evidence-based scientific research on vaccine-injuries to an unbiased conclusion, without being afraid of what the evidence might show, to develop the knowledge for a safer and more effective vaccine program in the long-term. This is in stark contrast with the Max-Vax tenet that such research should be avoided because the results might undermine public confidence in the current vaccine program.

The delusion is, of course, that SafeMinds or any other anti-vaccine group does anything that is unbiased or that it pursues evidence-based research. Quite the opposite, as I’ve documented time and time again over the last six years. The straw man is that scientists claim that research should be avoided because the results might undermine public confidence. A more accurate and honest representation of the so-called “MaxVax” position would be that a link between vaccines and autism is highly implausible and that, although it is impossible ever to prove a negative completely (i.e., that there is no link between vaccines and autism), enough studies have been done to estimate the chances of such a link existing to be very, very, very low. After all, even Generation Rescue’s attempts at finding a link between vaccines and autism have failed. In actuality, it is SafeMinds and its ilk that require more and more such research for the very purpose of undermining public confidence in the current vaccine program; that’s the raison d’être of anti-vaccine groups.

Here’s pillar two:

The SmartVax view holds that appropriate checks-and-balances on vaccine policy will produce the most beneficial vaccine program long-term for children’s health. Government-owned research data on vaccine-injuries should be made open to the public and easily accessible to all researchers. Long-term double-blind placebo studies tracking both acute and chronic health conditions (e.g. asthma, allergies, ADHD, and autism) should be required prior to any vaccine approval. Philosophical exemption, by which a parent can opt to delay or exempt certain vaccines for the child without discrimination such as loss of federal benefits or access to public schools, should be a fundamental right in the USA (as it is in Canada and other countries).

As I’ve explained before many, many times, performing randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled studies of currently used vaccines is completely unethical because it leaves the control group unprotected against vaccine-preventable disease. In fact, the only time such a trial could be ethical is if there is no currently existing vaccine for the disease; i.e., the vaccine is a new vaccine for a condition for which there currently isn’t a vaccine. If the vaccine is for a condition for which a vaccine currently exists, then the appropriate design of a clinical trial is to test the new vaccine against the old vaccine; doing otherwise would leave the control group unprotected against a vaccine-preventable disease. On the other hand, in a perverse way, I’m glad that SafeMinds has put itself on the record as supporting an unethical clinical trial design motivated by its anti-vaccine views. It makes it so easy for me to go after its position.

The rest of its position is the same sort of superficially plausible-sounding nonsense that we’re accustomed to hearing from SafeMinds and its ilk. The real reason it wants access to data on vaccine injuries is so that it can “reanalyze” it and come to different conclusions, the way Mark and David Geier tried to do five years ago, and, of course, its call for “philosophical exemption” is nothing more than warmed-over “health freedom” rhetoric.

Overall, then, there appears to be nothing new in the “philosophy” behind SmartVax. It’s nothing more than what we’ve been hearing from the anti-vaccine movement for a long time. It is, however, wrapped up in an appealing-sounding package. Unfortunately, the material is rotten to the core. The explanation of why that is will, unfortunately, have to wait for another day.