Anti-vaccine grande dame Barbara Loe Fisher cries “intimidation”

A couple of weeks ago, I sounded the alarm regarding a highly deceptive public service announcement/infomercial being run on some Delta Airlines flights, courtesy of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). That’s the organization founded by the grand dame of the anti-vaccine movement, Barbara Loe Fisher, who features prominently in the PSA. I call this PSA deceptive because, although it tries mightily to pass itself off as a reasonable series of strategies for avoiding catching influenza, in reality this PSA is a very sneaky and clever bit of anti-vaccine propaganda. Why do I say this? First, although the PSA quite correctly urges viewers to wash their hands, cover their mouths, and do other things that help prevent the spread of the influenza virus, it also quite obviously downplays the importance of the flu vaccine. The PSA’s seemingly reasonable message to “talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of the flu vaccine” is then followed by a pitch for viewers to visit the NVIC website, which, unbeknownst to most viewers, is as wretched a hive of scum and anti-vaccine quackery as there is on the Internet. Of course, if you don’t know that, you won’t realize that there’s anything wrong with the PSA, and if you’re not familiar with anti-vaccine canards it’s very likely that you won’t realize just how scientifically unsupported the fear mongering on the NVIC website is. The whole PSA is a Trojan horse, with the anti-vaccine message sneaking out after the horse has been brought into the keep.

Around the same time, Skepchick Elyse also noticed what the NVIC was doing and started a Change.org petition to Delta Airlines protesting its running of a PSA by a notorious anti-vaccine group, while the anti-vaccine crank blog Age of Autism celebrated the PSA.

After that, I must confess, I didn’t pay as much attention as I should have to what happened next. Instead of revisiting the topic and helping to keep up the pressure, I more or less let it slide, although I did note with approval that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), once it learned what Delta was doing through its content provider In-Flight Media Associates wrote a letter of protest complaining to Delta Airlines about the ads:

November 4, 2011
Richard Anderson
Chief Executive Officer
Delta Air Lines

Dear Mr. Anderson,

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) objects to the paid advertisement/public service message from the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) being shown throughout the month of November on Delta’s in-flight programming. The ad urges viewers to become informed about influenza and how to stay well during the flu season without resorting to the influenza vaccine.

While hand washing and covering sneezes are parts of a larger strategy to prevent the spread of influenza, influenza vaccine continues to be the best way to protect against the disease. It is especially important in enclosed settings where disease droplets can easily spread to passengers sitting in close quarters, especially infants and children and those with special health care needs.

The AAP and many other child health organizations have worked hard to protect children and their families from unfounded and unscientific misinformation regarding vaccine safety. The influenza vaccine is safe and effective.

By providing advertising space to an organization like the NVIC, which opposes the nation’s recommended childhood immunization schedule and promotes the unscientific practice of delaying or skipping vaccines altogether, you are putting the lives of children at risk, leaving them unprotected from vaccine-preventable diseases. Diseases like influenza can have serious consequences. From September 2010 to August 2011, 115 children died from influenza disease, most of whom were unvaccinated.

The AAP’s 60,000 member pediatricians urge you to remove these harmful messages, which fail to inform the public about the safety and efficacy of influenza vaccine. Please do your part to help reassure parents that vaccinating their children is the best way to protect them from influenza disease, particularly during this busy travel season.

Sincerely,
Robert W. Block, MD, FAAP
President, American Academy of Pediatrics

Meanwhile, physicians, skeptics, and other concerned citizens complained to Delta, whose PR flaks seemed befuddled by the whole issue and clearly needed some serious reeducation. Indeed, Delta’s response left much to be desired:

Dear Doctor Block,

Thank you for contacting Delta. We value customer feedback and appreciate you taking the time to contact us. Please allow me to share some background with you regarding the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) video spot running on some Delta aircraft this month.

Earlier this year, NVIC purchased video advertising space on some of our overhead in-flight entertainment systems. The three-minute segment,which ends its run on Delta flights during the month of November, ispart of a show we call Lifestyle 365 and focuses on flu prevention.

Since the ad began running, we have learned of e-mails, online petitions and other social media channels pushing for the removal of the spot claiming that it is an anti-vaccine advertisement that discourages people from receiving the influenza vaccine.

Based on customer feedback, Delta felt it important to review the episode with the occupational health department to better understand perception of the video. After doing so, we acknowledge to you that the video doesn’t support vaccination as the key preventative measure for influenza.

Therefore, we have changed our internal review processes and procedures to help ensure that submitted content is vetted differently going forward. We recognize that while the views represented in Lifestyle 365 do not necessarily match those of Delta, we have a responsibility to our customer to ensure all programming is relevant, accurate and does not lend itself to interpretation.

Our December public service announcement topic is “Every Child By /Two (ECBT) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v+mx5bGepinjk&feature+youtu.be which encourages vaccinations at an early age.

Again, customer feedback is very important to us and we appreciate you taking the time to share your concerns. Please let us know if you have any further questions and as always thank you for flying Delta.
Very sincerely,

Barbara Martin, RN
General Manager, Occupational Health
Delta Air Lines

True, Delta will run a much more responsible and accurate PSA from Every Child by Two in December, but in the meantime the NVIC ad is still running for the rest of the month of November. To sum up the situation thus far, the NVIC somehow got its ad featured in the content that In-Flight Media Associates provides to Delta Airlines. There were a lot of complaints about it, including a letter from the AAP, and Delta did nothing more than to promise to “change its internal review processes and procedures,” while letting the ad continue to run, no doubt because there’s probably a clause in the contract that would require the returning of the NVIC’s money for the rest of the month. All in all, it’s been a PR disaster for Delta, and I see little evidence that In-Flight Media Associates or Delta Airlines has learned anything from this whole kerfuffle. That’s probably not surprising, given the promiscuity with which In-Flight Media Associates solicited business, sending a letter to various organizations asking them to buy space for their “Lifestlye365-Cold, Flu, and Fall Allergy Season” series, with the carrot added being an offer to advertise their organization. Take a gander at the letter sent to various organizations. All at a discount, too:

We are proud to extend this opportunity to your organization and have attached additional details regarding pricing and exposure options for each airline. We are offering an exclusive 5-minute option for a rate of $49,500 (Standard is $75,000) with commitment by May 30, 2011.

The rest of the pitch includes a mention that there is wifi on many Delta flights, so that passengers can go straight to the website after viewing the advertisement, as well as a promise of assistance in producing the video to be shown.

All of the above makes the press release from the NVIC particularly hilarious, right from its very title, National Vaccine Information Center Calls Out AAP for Using Public Intimidation to Censor NVIC Flu Prevention Video Offered to Delta Travelers. It’s a press relief full of straw men, deceptive arguments, and, above all, whining. In fact, Barbara Loe Fisher’s entire response to the criticism Delta Airlines has received for airing these ads can be summed up in a single sentence: “Help, help, I’m being repressed!”

Here’s what I mean. After referring to the AAP letter as an “act ov intimidation” by a “pharma-funded trade organization,” Fisher launches into a predictable tirade:

NVIC co-founder and president Barbara Loe Fisher responded, “Without cause, the AAP has used their considerable financial resources and political influence to intimidate Delta for simply showing a video that offers accurate information about ways to stay healthy during the flu season, including talking with doctors about getting a flu shot. Censorship and attacks on consumer advocacy groups working to institute informed consent protections in public health policies should not be tolerated in this or any society that cherishes free speech and the right to self determination.”

She also disingenuously writes:

In the letter to Delta, the AAP alleged that NVIC “opposes the nation’s recommended childhood immunization schedule and promotes the unscientific practice of delaying or skipping vaccines altogether.” During NVIC’s three-decades of work to secure vaccine safety and informed consent protections in U.S. public health laws, NVIC has criticized one-size-fits-all vaccine mandates and advocated for more and better quality vaccine safety science but has not told individuals to use a particular vaccine schedule or told them not to get vaccinated.

“NVIC is a non-profit charity led by educated health care consumers. We are not doctors and do not tell people how or when to vaccinate or advise people not to vaccinate,” said NVIC’s Fisher. “We have a long public record of promoting well-informed, voluntary health care decision-making.”

No, the NVIC has a long public record of promoting not informed consent and informed health care decision-making, but rather misinformed consent and anti-vaccinationism. This is about as blatant an attempt to wrap anti-vaccine views in the mantle of “vaccine safety” and, of course, “health freedom.” After all, the ad argues that the vaccine is “only” 70% effective, a claim that the press release repeats. Yes, the NVIC once again indulges in that favorite of all crank techniques, the fallacy of the perfect solution. The basic logical fallacy there is to try to argue that, just because the vaccine isn’t 100% perfect, it’s useless crap. Is 70% protection optimal? Of course not. But it’s way better than nothing, and given that the flu vaccine is very, very safe, it’s more than worth it to use a preventative measure that lessens your chances of developing the flu by 70% or so. In any case, remember that this is the same organization with a board member named Claire Dwoskin who referred to vaccines as a “holocaust of poison.”

What interests me the most about this press release and Barbara Loe Fisher’s response, however, is the rank hypocrisy combined with a persecution complex. All the AAP did was to write a letter of concern to a corporation that was airing Fisher’s anti-vaccine video. It didn’t threaten to sue. It didn’t threaten to boycott. It merely pointed out that the NVIC website is not a reliable source for information about the flu and flu vaccines and that the PSA from the NVIC is promoting a distorted message with regards to the flu vaccine. To Barbara Loe Fisher, that’s “intimidation.” To me, that’s free speech.

Of course, the anti-vaccine movement, including Barbara Loe Fisher herself, has a long history of really trying to intimidate critics into silence. Indeed, it was less than two years ago that Fisher sued Paul Offit, journalist Amy Wallace, and Condé Nast, all in order to intimidate Dr. Offit. She lost, fortunately. As far as “intimidation” goes, it’s the anti-vaccine movement that has that down. I ought to know. I’ve experienced it myself first hand, as a bunch of Age of Autism readers, spurred on by Jake Crosby, tried to get me fired from my job. Paul Offit has put up with harassment and threats for many years now, all because he dares to speak out for vaccines and call out the anti-vaccine movement for its lies.

In fact, sometimes, the anti-vaccine movement goes beyond just legal threats, harassment, and attempts to get its enemies fired. Indeed, just the other day, Mark Sircus advocated killing scientists at the CDC in a post entitled String the Bastards Up. Here are a couple of choice tidbits:

So you can understand why I think these people should be lined up against a wall. Actually there is no punishment that could possibly compensate for the suffering of autism and the tragedy of vaccine deaths.

And:

For all those who are for the death penalty, my message will be clear. I am calling for the conviction and the worst possible punishment under the law for certain people in government who are in the medical field. There seems to be no limit to what our present society will accept. We are letting the bankers and the shysters on Wall Street destroy western civilization, allowing them the fattest paychecks on earth as a reward. And we are letting doctors in white coats inject poisonous heavy metals into babies and paying them well for it.

Meanwhile, one of the commenters, as was pointed out by skeweddistribution, wants to go even further:

I love the fact you are trying to hold these people who have done indescribable harm accountable. But, one of the reasons they get away with this, is people are reluctant to name names. Do name them. Put their names on the Internet, in forums, on websites for all to see. If you know who they are, name them. Let all the world see their crimes. They escape because they can remain anonymous. Their colleagues, their families, their professional connections, should all know what they do. Let them be named!!!

This sounds exactly like the rhetoric of animal rights terrorists, for whom children are not off limits and the intimidation of students is considered a legitimate tactic. I always knew Sircus was a loon, given his claim that baking soda can cure the flu and cancer, but I had no idea that he was a potentially violent loon. At the very least, he’s ramping up the violent rhetoric to the point where someone might act on it. And I haven’t even mentioned many of the other examples of intimidation, either through the legal system or through harassment of critics at their jobs that the anti-vaccine movement has engaged in. Indeed, I know of another example right now that I’d love to be able to blog about but for the moment must remain silent about. Maybe that’s what prodded me to blog about this, the confluence of events, topped off by this new incident.

The bottom line is that attempts at intimidation by cranks like anti-vaccine zealots, be the attempts through legal thuggery or harassment at a critic’s job and attempts to get him fired are a direct consequence of their inability to persuade through science and reason. They are, more than anything else, emblematic of the utter failure of vaccine pseudoscience. When Barbara Loe Fisher complains about “intimidation,” she has no idea what she’s talking about. All she has to face are letters of protest from the AAP and the scorn of the blogosphere. No one is threatening her with legal action, nor is anyone trying to shut down her organization or deprive her of her livelihood. She should remember that before whining so loudly about being “persecuted” again.

Unfortunately, as we all know, she won’t.