Antivaccine cranks in Michigan: MLive.com gives Mary Tocco a platform

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I come across antivaccine editorials all the time. Usually, some editor ignorant of the issues involved is duped by antivaccine arguments or succumbs to the annoying journalistic fallacy (with respect to science) of “telling both sides.” Either that, or the editor has antivaccine proclivities himself. Either way, the result is an op-ed by someone like Barbara Loe Fisher, one of the clown car crew over at at the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism, or one of the drinking moms over at the horribly misnamed “The Thinking Moms’ Revolution.” I’ve seen so many of them and dealt with the same misinformation and the same old lies that I’ve deconstructed, debunked, and applied the clue by four of science and skepticism that I ignore the vast majority of them. However, there’s something different when they hit close to home, as in my state. My state!

That, I cannot ignore, particularly when such articles come from the likes of Mary Tocco—no, not even when Steve Novella has already taken a look at the post. Steve’s good, as always, but, again, this is my state. Besides, I can always bring my style of not-so-Respectful Insolence that this sort of thing deserves and that Steve is to nice to apply with such tender loving care.

Apparently it was an editor who foolishly thought that “tell both sides” applies to countering science with pseudoscience over at MLive, a state-wide news site. Two weeks ago, Dr. Anthony F. Ognjan, chief of infectious diseases for McLaren Macomb, and Dr. Sandro Cinti, associate professor of Infectious Disease at the University of Michigan and chair of the Michigan State Medical Society’s Public Health Committee, wrote an excellent article entitled Anti-vaccination movement threatens the health, safety and well-being of Michigan children. Basically, it was an op-ed criticizing our very own state’s antivaccine group, Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines (MOMV) with science and facts. Kudos were sent to (and deserved by) MLive for publishing such an article. Unfortunately, Jane Eyer, director of community engagement, couldn’t leave well enough alone.

Let’s just put it this way. “Community engagement” does not mean letting any old crank who wants a voice on MLive to publish an op-ed. Does Ms. Eyer allow 9/11 Truthers a forum? Holocaust deniers? Moon landing hoaxers? Bigfoot believers? Then why on earth did she allow an antivaccine crank like Mary Tocco to write a response entitled No one should be forced to vaccinate their children?

Tocco’s article is so chock full of hoary old antivaccine tropes that I was half-tempted to leave it as an exercise for the reader to dismantle them. But, hey, it’s me. You know I can’t do that, particularly because I’ve only just hit around the 500 word mark at this point. So here we go.

First off, I’m ashamed to have to admit that, until recently, Mary Tocco was Michigan’s very own Barbara Loe Fisher Jenny McCarthy (only without the fame) rolled into one. She claims the hilarious title of director of vaccine research and education for MOMV. “Research.” You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. You’ll see what I mean if you wander over to what MOMV considers to be “vaccine research,” complete with links to antivaccine sites whose excretions I’ve dealt with many times before on this blog, such as Medical Voices, the Orwellian-named National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC, which really should be called the National Vaccine Misinformation Center), antivaccine attorney Patricia Finn, ThinkTwice, and others—including, of course, Tocco’s own site, Childhoodshots.com. She used to be Michigan’s own antivaccine loon, being married to a chiropractor in Clawson, but has lived in Charleston, SC for quite a while now. Still, she seems to remain heavily involved in Michigan’s antivaccine movement. Why? I don’t know.

Be that as it may, let’s take a look at her MLive.com article. She begins with a statement virtually all antivaccine groups make at some point in any article they produce for a mainstream news source, with the uncommon exception of the occasional antivaccinationist who is proud of being antivaccine:

The authors labeled Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines an anti-vaccine group. Our organization is about protecting parental right to choose whether or not to use vaccines as a method of health care for themselves and their children.

We have protected the rights of parents in Michigan since defeating a bill back in September 1995 that would have eliminated the philosophical exemption to vaccinations and are a voice for thousands of parents who support transparent information about the known safety risks of vaccines. MOM encourages informed vaccine decisions and do not tell people how to decide or whether or not to vaccinate. No one should be forced to take a drug.

Ah, yes. The old “I’m not ‘anti-vaccine’; I’m a vaccine safety advocate” gambit! No doubt many antivaccinationists believe that they really are vaccine safety advocates. They can delude themselves to believe they are virtually anything, but that doesn’t make it so, any more than I could turn myself into a major league pitcher by believing I’m a great baseball player. For instance, on the MOMV website, there is a story of Brynn Fischer,who in a divorce battle is fighting the father, who, quite reasonably, wants their children vaccinated. There’s a FAQ that asks the question, “Isn’t it really dangerous if a person, especially a child, gets any of these communicable diseases, like whooping cough, diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, and polio?” and answers it, “No,” citing the ultimate in intellectually dishonest antivaccine talking points, the claim that death rates for these diseases were falling before the introduction of vaccines. In response to another question, “Haven’t vaccines been responsible for reducing the number of cases of communicable diseases, like whooping cough, diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella, and polio?” the usefulness of vaccines is downplayed in favor of better nutrition and sanitation and noting that these diseases have affected less than 1% of the population of Michigan for the last 100 years?

WTF?

Michigan’s population is just under 10 million based on the last census. It was 2.4 million in 1900. One percent of the population would thus range from 24,000 to 100,000 people between 1900 and now. A dumber argument for not vaccinating or for the “ineffectiveness” of vaccines I have seldom seen, and I’ve seen a lot over the last decade. Let’s put it this way. There were 951 traffic fatalities in Michigan in 2013. That’s 0.0095%. Clearly, we don’t need to do anything to decrease traffic fatalities, do we? By Tocco’s logic we’re doing just fine! Let’s abolish seat belt laws! Especially since traffic fatalities aren’t contagious, although, as in the case of vaccine-preventable diseases, innocent people who have done nothing to increase their risk or bring misfortune on themselves suffer.

Another astoundingly stupid argument, along the same lines, is that the total number of vaccine-preventable disease cases in Michigan were low. No kidding! That’s because vaccines work!

None of this stops Tocco from plunging headlong into more misplaced self-righteousness:

The authors criticized the Candidate Questionnaire MOM mails out regularly to candidates running for federal and state political office. Two questions ask candidates if they support vaccine decision rights and one asks if they support independent scientific research. As Michigan citizens, we have the right to ask where the candidates stand on this important rights and health issue.

Sure, and Michigan citizens also have the right to ask where the candidates stand on Bigfoot, whether 9/11 was an inside job, or whether humans ever actually landed on the moon, but that doesn’t mean they should or that we shouldn’t criticize them when they do. Remember, “vaccine decision rights” is code for undermining school vaccine mandates, frequently based on pseudoscientific fears of non-existent vaccine “injury” in the form of autism and other conditions not caused by vaccines. Let’s just put it this way, if Tocco isn’t antivaccine, why is the website she recommends called Novaccine.com? In any case, as Steve Novella and I have noted, it’s better to be for freedom than against science, which is why antivaccine groups cloak themselves in “health freedom” rhetoric. It’s very clear, however, that these groups only want the freedom to be antiscience.

Here, perhaps, is Tocco’s greatest howler, though:

The authors claim that Michigan’s unvaccinated rates are a health risk. I have not seen any studies proving that those who are unvaccinated or lacking in all of their vaccines have shown a reduction in health. There has never been a study comparing the unvaccinated with the fully vaccinated, which I believe is the only way we can compare health outcomes. It is a fact that when a child recovers from these infectious illness, they obtain life-long immunity as a benefit.

First off, the “vaccinated/unvaccinated” study trope is a favorite of the antivaccine movement. It’s without merit. Second, Tocco seems unaware of the research that the unvaccinated are more prone to—you guessed it!—vaccine preventable diseases. For instance, children not vaccinated against pertussis are at a 23-fold increased risk of getting pertussis. That’s a a reduction in health! There’s a reason pertussis has returned to Michigan! Basically, there’s only one difference in health between vaccinated and unvaccinated children, and that’s that unvaccinated children suffer from vaccine-preventable diseases at a much higher rate! There you go, Ms. Tocco!

Tocco trots out a couple of more antivaccine lies:

The science “is not settled” on vaccine safety or efficacy. The United States Vaccine Court has settled over 85 cases where children are injured with neurological injuries from vaccines since 2000.

No. Not exactly. Try again. In reality, yes, there are “table injuries” for which the Vaccine Court automatically grants compensation. No one denies that vaccines can injury, but serious vaccine injury is incredibly rare and the benefits of vaccines far outweigh the tiny risks.

Next up:

As I travel the country speaking with parents, the #1 concern is vaccine ingredients. Many are not meant to eat and yet we inject them via vaccination! For more ingredient information see www.novaccine.com.

You know, there ought to be a law, similar to Godwin’s law and Nazi analogies, that says that the longer a vaccine “discussion” goes on the chances of the “toxins gambit” being brought up approaches one. We ought to have a similar corollary to this law as there is to Godwin’s law that states that the first person to bring up the “toxins gambit” automatically loses the debate. Mary Tocco loses.

I will admit to amusement at Tocco’s last line:

Regarding the reference to Jenny McCarthy, I have been independently researching vaccines since before Jenny was out of diapers, and she has not influenced me at all.

Congratulations, then! You imbibed the pseudoscience of the antivaccine movement decades ago all on your own! That’s something to be proud of, for sure! Of course, in this video (which is a truly hilarious slice of antivaccine pseudoscience that might require a little of the ol’ Insolence directed at it sometime in the future), Tocco says she’s been at this since 1994. A quick look at Wikipedia reveals that Jenny McCarthy is 41 years old and first posed in PLAYBOY in 1993; so unless Tocco knows something about Jenny McCarthy’s continence as a young adult that we don’t know about, she’s full of what adult diapers are basically designed to catch.

The bottom line is that Mary Tocco is an antivaccine crank, promoting nothing but pure pseudoscience. For shame, Jane Eyer, for giving her a platform on MLive.com! Michigan has enough problems without having to put up with the ignorant opinions of antivaccine activists being given a statewide platform.