Antivaccinationists brief Congressional staffers, and the misinformation flows

The other day, I pointed out that Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, was following in the footsteps of the former chair of the committee, likely the quackiest, most antivaccine Congressman who ever served in the House of Representatives. Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN). I guess that since Burton retired at the end of the last Congress, someone has to step up to the plate when it comes to pushing the antivaccine agenda. Issa is doing that by holding a hearing a year ago on “autism” that was in reality a thinly disguised excuse to castigate scientists from the CDC about the vaccine schedule and why the question of whether vaccines cause autism isn’t a priority for the government.

This year, he’s doing it again in a hearing that was bought and paid for by the antivaccine movement in the form of the Canary Party to the tune of $40,000. Only this time, the Canary Party wants Issa to go to go after the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, a no-fault program instituted in 1986 to streamline the compensation of legitimate vaccine injuries through the creation of a special court, known as the Vaccine Court, presided over by judges known as Special Masters, that makes it easier for parents by automatically compensating certain specific “table injuries” and reimbursing parents for legal expenses and expert witnesses, win or lose. Overall it’s a good deal compared to regular court, with far fewer hoops to jump through and a greater ease of finding attorneys because they know that, win or lose, they’ll get paid. The reason it was necessary was because a flood of lawsuits in the 1980s was endangering the U.S. vaccination program, as more and more companies threatened to stop making vaccines because of liability concerns. Ironically, the woman who is now the grande dame of the antivaccine movement, Barbara Loe Fisher, was heavily involved in the drafting of the original legislation that created the Vaccine Court but turned against the system she lobbied for and helped create when it became clear that spurious, non-science-based claims, such as claims that vaccines cause autism, weren’t being compensated. Indeed, antivaccinationists were shocked that the Vaccine Court actually tries to base its compensation decisions on science.

In any case, this year, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will be holding another hearing, as I pointed out. However, in the leadup to the hearing on the Vaccine Court, there was a briefing yesterday by Mary Holland, antivaccine lawyer not-so-extraordinaire, and Rolf Hazlehurst, whose son was one of the test cases for the Autism Omnibus. Fortunately, my skeptical tendrils are long, and there were at least two people there who were not down with the antivaccine message being pushed. The first was Ed Beck, Senior Policy Analyst for the Center for Inquiry its Office of Public Policy in Washington, DC. The second, who provided me with notes, shall remain anonymous.

The first thing I’d like to point out is that Mary Holland was quoted by Ed as having said something that totally nails the attitude of the antivaccine movement, albeit unintentionally:

So is the correlation between organic food sales and autism. Indeed, it’s even more dramatic. We don’t claim that organic food causes autism, though. Of course, the antivaccine movement is all about confusing correlation and causation; so Holland just couldn’t help herself, I guess.

That little tidbit out of the way, let’s dig in, based on what I know. First, it was announced that the hearing itself will occur on December 4, 2013. So mark your calendars, people. Those of you who are in the DC area who are of a science-based attitude, try to make it if you can to counter the torrent of attacks on the NVICP that will no doubt flow fast and furious. At the very least, you can warn your Congressional Representative about it and try to educate him at the same time.

First up was Mary Holland, who, according to the notes, swore up and down a massive stack of Bibles (metaphorically speaking) that she is really, and truly not anti-vaccine. This is, of course, utter nonsense, as I have documented on multiple occasions right here on this very blog. Let’s just put it this way. If Mary Holland is not “anti-vaccine,” why is it that I can’t find anything she’s written that supports her claim that she “favors and strongly supports safe and effective vaccines”? Why is it that she co-wrote with Louise Kuo Habakus an antivaccine screed called Vaccine Epidemic: How Corporate Greed, Biased Science, and Coercive Government Threaten Our Human Rights, Our Health, and Our Children? (The very title is clearly antivaccine.) And then why does she launch into a mass of easily debunked antivaccine canards? For instance, she showed a video about Gardasil that repeated many of the tropes and lies that I’ve discussed about Gardasil on many occasions.

One wonders whether Holland could even define a “safe” vaccine. In fact, it would be very interesting to see her try. No medical intervention is absolutely 100% risk-free. So what level of risk is “safe enough” for a vaccine? By any measure, vaccines are incredibly safe, but Holland seems to think that they must be absolutely safe. I’ve often joked that being antivaccine is a bit like pornography. As Justice Potter Stewart once famously wrote of pornography, “…I know it when I see it,” and I know antivaccine tropes and views when I see them. However, unlike pornography, even though it’s quite true that what is anti-vaccine is in general easily identifiable to those of us who pay attention to such matters, it’s much more difficult to define in a way that those who don’t pay attention to the issue can recognize. This difficulty is complicated by the fact that there are a number of different flavors of anti-vaccine views ranging from the view that vaccines are a tool of Satan to depopulate the earth to views that blame them for autism and chronic disease, the latter of which Holland apparently stated in abundance. It’s also important to realize that most parents who buy into anti-vaccine views do so out of ignorance, because they have been misled, rather than due to stupidity, although I’m not so sure about Mary Holland. In any case, antivaccinationists can usually be identified by pressing them to identify vaccines whose use they support and that they consider “safe.” Mary Holland appears not to consider any vaccine adequately safe.

Next, Holland repeated a “classic” antivaccine trope, in which it is pointed out that mortality rates from various vaccine-preventable diseases were falling before the vaccines for these diseases were introduced. She then claims that vaccines affected incidence, not deaths. This is, of course, a trope so hoary that it has a name: the “vaccines didn’t save us” gambit. It’s intellectually dishonest in the extreme, because it ignores the fact that the reason that mortality from these diseases was decreasing was because of better medical care and that further decreasing mortality required decreasing the incidence of these diseases. That’s just what vaccines did. Of course, one wonders what on earth this has to do with the NVICP and whether it is a good system to compensate the vaccine injured. One might think that Holland is trying to denigrate the efficacy of vaccines in order to demonize them and make it easier for her to attack a system that doesn’t give her the desired result.

Add to that Holland’s parroting of more antivaccine misinformation and distortions, such as the claim that when it comes to vaccines children are getting “too many too soon.” Then, of course, there was the classic confusing of correlation with causation, in which Holland tried to link chronic conditions such as obesity learning disabilities, asthma, infant morality, and, of course, autism, with the increased number of vaccines and doses in the current vaccine schedule, calling it a “dramatic correlation,” as Ed described in his Tweet above.

But she’s not antivaccine. Oh, no. Not at all. She just thinks vaccines are dangerous, that they are responsible for autism and most chronic diseases in children. She just repeats the lie that Gardasil kills and that it causes premature ovarian failure and infertility. Oh, and she thinks that the U.S. has taken away informed consent for vaccines. One wonders when that happened. (It didn’t.) In reality, what Holland is unhappy about is that her version of misinformed consent isn’t what rules.

You know, just reading my mole’s notes, I’m really embarrassed for Holland. She is really clueless, so much so that she actually showed the Canary Party video, you know, the one narrated by Rob Schneider. It’s a video so chock full of pseudoscience, cherry picked information, and spin that it’s in danger of collapsing into a black whole of stupid. I mean, seriously, if you’re going to try to make a scientifically valid and persuasive case, that video is the last thing you want to do. Of course, making a scientifically valid case is not what this is about. Making an appeal to emotion is. That’s why Holland brought up even more of the antivaccine movement’s greatest hits, including:

And Holland claims she’s not antivaccine.

I’m not going to say much about Rolf Hazlehurst’s part of the talk, because it was even more vacuous, consisting of his misinformed opinion interspersed with rants about how unfairly treated he thought he was by the Vaccine Court, He accused the Vaccine Court of “willfully and intentionally” concealing “critical and material evidence” on how vaccines cause autism and representing that this evidence did not exist. The claim, of course, is utter nonsense, as the evidence presented was pure pseudoscience. As I discussed so long ago, the Vaccine Court bent over backwards to be deferential to him and the parents of the children who were the other test cases. As much as I want to sympathize with him for his travails taking care of a special needs child, from the notes I read the amount of misinformation he spouted was nearly as epic as Holland. One also notes that Mr. Hazlehurst and his wife subjected their son to all sorts of “autism biomed” treatments, up to and including chemical castration with Lupron, a particularly vile form of nonsensical medical treatment that I’ve blogged about multiple times before.

So what are Holland’s complaints about the NVICP? Here are some of them, with my comments after:

  • The NVICP forecloses access to other forums. No, it doesn’t. If a case fails in Vaccine Court, the parents can access the federal courts.
  • Now adversarial, contrary to original intent. It’s only seen as adversarial if you try to bring a case based on pseudoscience.
  • No judicial independence of special masters. Holland presents no evidence to support this contention.
  • 80% of cases lose. One wonders how many cases Holland believes to be an appropriate number? I’m guessing that anything less than 100% of cases winning would be too few for her.
  • Unequal playing field – HHS lawyers/families. I’m not sure how this is the case when the parents’ legal expenses are reimbursed.
  • Three year statutes of limitations. This seems more than reasonable for a true vaccine injury, unless Holland can tell us of a vaccine injury shown by science to become apparent longer than three years after being vaccinated.
  • Experts demeaned and reputations harmed. You mean like Mark Geier, the quack who used chemical castration to treat autism because he thought it would improve the efficacy of chelation therapy? Apparently to Holland “demean” means to dismiss quacks from being considered valid expert witnesses.
  • Conflicts of interest. Ah, yes. The all-purpose antivaccine bugaboo: Allege conflicts of interest without actually demonstrating a real conflict of interest.
  • Not transparent – people don’t know about it. That is not a reason to eliminate it.
  • Judicial forum for 90% – not design, no rules of evidence, no discovery, no jury.
  • Science lacking. Science is indeed lacking, but not in the Vaccine Court. The only science that is lacking is compelling science demonstrating a link between vaccines and autism and all the other chronic diseases that Holland blames on them.

Holland then lists policy options (again, my comments afterward):

  • Do nothing. I would actually be fine with this. What’s not broken doesn’t need fixing.
  • Tinker at edges. I would be OK with this; no system is perfect. However, it would depend on the specifics of the “tinkering.” If it’s “tinkering” that weakens the science used by the Vaccine Court, I would oppose that.
  • Make the NVICP optional. It already is, essentially, optional. If a finding goes against the parents, they can still access federal courts.
  • Give limited liability protection. Remove liability protection for vaccines since 1986. This would be an interesting development. If this were to happen, then there would be liability protection for the whole cell pertussis vaccine, but not the newer acellular pertussis vaccine. In any case, this is a dumb idea.
  • Repeal act. Give access to courts. Make manufacturers liable. Revert to state informed consent laws. Remember why the National Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 was passed? It was because of a flood of frivolous lawsuits threatening to drive manufacturers out of the business of manufacturing vaccines? Want to go back to those days? Want to risk losing the U.S. vaccine program? This is the way to go if that’s what you want.
  • Create a federal right of vaccine exemption. Oh, hell no!
  • Repeal act AND create federal vaccine exemption right. Double, oh, hell no!

As you can see, Mary Holland’s goal is nothing less than the dismantling of the NVICP and the Vaccine Court. She must not be allowed to succeed. If you want to know more about why, please read Dorit Reiss’ post on the issue, in which she explains from a legal perspective just how wrong (and wrong-headed) Mary Holland is and how, by every possible measure, for children with real vaccine injuries, the Vaccine Court is equivalent to or better than going through the civil courts. I’ll be keeping an eye on developments between now and December 4. I hope you will do the same and be sure to contact your legislators to educate them about Holland’s intent and to urge them to support the NVICP.