Has Dr. Oz become antivaccine? The answer would appear to be yes.


ORAC NOTE: I’ve added the links to the video segments, which are now up at the Dr. Oz website. I also did a screen grab of a certain really stupid thing that I noticed when I watched the segment but, because I was watching it on DVR, didn’t have the ability to show you. It’s near the end. Enjoy.

When last we left “America’s doctor,” Dr. Mehmet Oz, in June, he was having his posterior handed to him by Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) in a Senate hearing about the deceptive marketing of supplements in which his over-the-top promotion of supplements like Garcinia gambogia, green coffee bean extract, and raspberry ketone. It was an unexpected pleasure, not for Dr. Oz, obviously, but for skeptics who had been concerned when they had learned Dr. Oz was going to appear before the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, which Sen. McCaskill chairs, that it would turn into a love-fest or a grandstanding opportunity for Dr. Oz. It wasn’t. In fact, even though at the end of his punishment Dr. Oz promised to clean up his act and tone down his overenthusiastic boosterism for supplements, without of course making any specific promises, I had little doubt that Dr. Oz would revert to his old ways as soon as the new season started.

I wasn’t wrong. In fact, I think I can now safely say that, in addition to the quackery and weight loss supplements that he promotes regularly on his show, Dr. Oz has started down the path to become antivaccine, if he’s not antivaccine already. Of course, I had seen rumblings of antivaccine proclivities coming from Dr. Oz before. For example, nearly five years ago, he was interviewed by Joy Behar, as noted on the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism. During that interview, he admitted that his children had not received their flu shots during the H1N1 pandemic and strongly implied that his wife had been responsible, saying, “I`m in a happy marriage and my wife who makes most of the important decisions as most couples have in their lives who absolutely refuses.” Of course, at the time I knew that Oz’s wife is a reiki master and clearly heavily into quackery. Whether it was she who influenced Oz to go as far as he has into the wild world of woo or whether he discovered it himself, I don’t know. What I do know is that anyone who produces a segment like the one he produced on yesterday The Dr. Oz Show is well on his way to being antivaccine. What do I mean?

Take a look at the thimerosal segment on yesterday’s The Dr. Oz Show, and you’ll quickly see what I mean:

Dr. Oz had as guests on his show antivaccine loon Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and his partner in crime against vaccine science, “functional medicine” expert Dr. Robert Hyman, on his show in a credulous segment about the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal that buys into virtually every trope about mercury in vaccines promulgated by the antivaccine movement. The reason, of course, is because Kennedy and Hyman have a book out. It’s a book entitled Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: Mercury Toxicity in Vaccines and the Political, Regulatory, and Media Failures That Continue to Threaten Public Health that I’ve discussed before in which, as I put it, Kennedy parties about thimerosal like it’s 1999.

To give you an idea what this segment was like, let me tell you how it was advertised and introduced. That’s almost all you need to know. Before the thimerosal segment, there was a somewhat useful segment about heart disease in women. (At least, there wasn’t anything objectionable from a medical standpoint in it.) After that segment concluded, there followed a teaser for the upcoming segment that blared:

Flu shots under fire. Why is a toxic ingredient that was banned lurking in your vaccine?

Things went downhill from there after the commercial break, when Oz introduced the thimerosal segment by describing RFK’s and Hyman’s book as a “controversial” new book that asks the question, “Why does the US government allow a toxin to be added to one of your most common medicines?” He then stated that two “world class leaders have come together to write a book that will change the way you think about the flu shot.” Ugh. “Controversy” is the wrong word. “Manufactroversy” is the right word.

Oz then went on to observe that vaccines have come “under a lot of fire in the medical community.” It was at this point that I wanted to reach through the screen and strangle Dr. Oz, its taking a major effort of will not to do so. (Such blatant stupidity has that effect on me, particularly dangerous antivaccine stupidity such as what Dr. Oz had just regurgitated to millions of viewers. Fortunately, I am not a violent person, but I’m sure anyone who’s pro-science will understand the momentary urge.) No, no, no, no! Vaccines have NOT come under a lot of fire from the medical community. The medical community is virtually universally supportive of vaccines. Rather, vaccines have come under fire from a number of misguided activists who mistakenly think, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, that vaccines cause autism. They’ve also come “under fire” from quackery supporters like RFK, Jr., and, yes, Mark Hyman. In any case, in order to “clear the air,” Oz went on to ask Hyman and RFK whether they are antivaccine. I almost laughed when RFK said that he’s “fiercely pro-vaccine,” which, given the level of sheer pseudoscience, conspiracy mongering, and stupidity that he’s laid down over the last nine years on the topic, has to be either a lie or the most amazing case of self-delusion I’ve seen in a very long time or an outright lie. Hyman chimed in, assuring that he, too, is pro-vaccine, which is nonsense. If you’ve collaborated with a book with the likes of RFK, Jr. that lays down scads of pseudoscience, conspiracy mongering, and misinformation about vaccines, you’ve lost your right to call yourself pro-vaccine, or at least you’ve lost any expectation that people won’t laugh in your face when you do something as risible as claiming that you are not antivaccine.

Next followed a brief video about the history of the use of thimerosal in vaccines, which noted that thimerosal came to be suspected of causing autism in the 1990s. In fairness, the segment stated that the link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism has been discredited, but that was buried under sensationalistic fear mongering, with alarming images, the observation that the government got rid of thimerosal in vaccines because, “Better safe than sorry,” and the conspicuous notation that thimerosal is gone from childhood vaccines with the “glaring exception” of some flu vaccines, not to mention the claim that the EPA considers medical products containing thimerosal to be “hazardous waste,” decorated, naturally, a big picture of a biohazard symbol in the background. At one point, he displayed an Erlenmeyer flask full of what looked like liquid mercury, swirling the liquid metal, and then added the “mercury” into a beaker of water meant to represent a multi-use vial of vaccines to demonstrate how “mercury” is added to vaccines to prevent bacterial overgrowth that can occur as a result of bacterial seeding that can result from entering the vial with more than one needle. It’s one of the dumber visual demonstrations I’ve seen on The Dr. Oz Show, and that’s saying a lot. Thimerosal is not metallic mercury. One would think that Oz might have picked up a bit of organic chemistry in his premed courses or in medical school.

After the video, Hyman claimed that children receive just as much thimerosal now as they did in the old days because it’s in the flu shot. This is, of course, utter nonsense. Children get one flu vaccine a year. Many don’t even get thimerosal-containing versions of the vaccine; indeed, many receive a live attenuated influenza vaccine (LAIV) like FluMist, which is given intranasally. The hilarious thing about this segment is how much of a non-issue this is and has been since 2002 at least. RFK claimed that when he gets his flu vaccine he asks for the thimerosal-free version and that his doctor has no trouble keeping it in stock. Unfortunately, Hyman couldn’t resist chiming in to call mercury a “neurotoxin,” which it is, but not at the amounts and in the form received by infants from vaccines. He implied but didn’t explicitly state, that mercury at the level in vaccines could cause neurodevelopmental difficulties, which, as I’ve pointed out time and time again, using citations to large, well-designed studies to back me up, is simply not true.

One thing I do believe is the part where Dr. Oz described how he had polled his viewers with the question, “Do you trust that vaccines are safe?” and found that 65% of them said no. Given that this is a Dr. Oz audience, that’s not surprising at all, although it is still very depressing. This result led Dr. Oz to claim that the reason he did this segment on thimerosal is because he’s all about “restoring trust” in vaccines, as did Hyman, who says that he and RFK are all about getting people vaccinated and also restoring trust in vaccines, to which I say: Bullshit! Using such tactics to “restore trust” in the vaccine program is akin to showing flaming car crashes and dead victims in order to “restore trust’ in automobile safety.

You can see this in the part where Dr. Oz briefly reads part of a CDC statement:

The conclusion of the scientific community is clear that thimerosal-containing vaccines are safe and effective and do not represent a public health risk.

To this, RFK had the actual cojones to claim that the CDC statement was “not a scientific statement.” I say again: Bullshit! I particularly call BS on RFK’s claim of spending three years reviewing the literature with a “crack scientific team” with the best research scientists and editors (one wonders if he included Mark and David Geier on that “crack team”). He claimed that he couldn’t find a single “valid, plausible study that said that thimerosal was safe.” Well, here, Robert, I’ll help you out. Here are a few that I’ve blogged about myself over the years. Of course, you probably don’t think they’re “valid” because they conclude that thimerosal-containing vaccines don’t cause all the horrible things you think they cause, but they’re there, and they’re valid. Hyman then pulled the nonsensical gambit that the FDA has banned thimerosal to put on your skin, asking, then, why is it still safe for vaccines? Funny how he neglected this statement from the FDA:

Studies have shown that there is no known harm from thimerosal preservative-containing vaccines. In 1999, FDA conducted a review of thimerosal in childhood vaccines and found no evidence of harm from the use of thimerosal as a vaccine preservative, other than a reaction at the injection site. The Institute of Medicine’s Immunization Safety Review Committee reached a similar conclusion in 2001, based on a review of available data, and again in 2004, after reviewing studies performed after its 2001 report. Since then, additional studies have been published confirming these findings.

I won’t quote what the CDC says about thimerosal, because it’s very similar. The idea that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism is a long-failed hypothesis. In any case, at the very end of the segment Oz concluded:

First of all, pregnant women and babies, and people over 65, you’re at risk. You should ask for thimerosal-free vaccines, like the kind you find in a single dose. As for healthy adults up to the age of 50, it’s pretty simple. Consider asking for a flu nasal spray. That doesn’t contain any thimerosal, you don’t even need a needle, just put it in your nose. It’s just as effective.

While this advice is unlikely to cause harm, it’s also unnecessary. Most children don’t get thimerosal-containing vaccines anymore, and there’s no evidence that thimerosal-containing vaccines are harmful to adults or even to pregnant women. Ironically, research by the “CDC whistleblower” himself, Dr. William Thompson, is some of the key evidence that thimerosal does not cause neurodevelopmental disorders in children or problems when administered to pregnant women.

So has Dr. Oz gone antivaccine? I’m sure that he thinks that he hasn’t. He might even believe that tripe he fed his audience about wanting to “restore trust” in the vaccine program by prodding the CDC to remove all thimerosal from vaccines, even though it isn’t necessary to do so. I don’t believe him, though. If that was really his intent, he sure has a funny way of doing it, instead doing everything possible to play up the fear of thimerosal: Portraying thimerosal as this incredibly toxic compound, going on and on about its neurotoxicity, and likening it to toxic waste, with images of biohazard symbols and closeups of babies being injected, while giving only perfunctory acknowledgment of the real science showing no link between thimerosal and autism, after which he let RFK, Jr. and Mark Hyman basically say whatever they want about thimerosal. I mean, seriously. RFK, Jr. calls himself “fiercely pro-vaccine”? Seriously? If that were true, his supporters in the antivaccine movement would drop him like a rock. Like many in the antivaccine movement, RFK, Jr. might think himself to be “pro-vaccine safety,” but his words and deeds belie that claim.

In fact, the dead giveaway that Dr. Oz has either gone antivaccine or is so irresponsible that he’s willing to put forth a camouflaged antivaccine message in search of “controversy” and ratings is the very fact that he had RFK, Jr. on his show to talk about vaccines. Remember, RFK is one of the key people go really stoked the fear of thimerosal-containing vaccines back in 2005 when he published his misinformation-filled “expose” that popularized the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement. Surely Dr. Oz and his producers must have known this, even if they didn’t know this:


Notice something? (Besides the vacant look on RFK, Jr.’s face?) The caption says “In 1999 thimerosal began to be removed from childhood vaccines like measles, mumps, and rubella.” Apparently Dr. Oz’s staff and Dr. Oz failed to realize that the measles-mumps-rubella trivalent vaccine doesn’t contain thimerosal. It never contained thimerosal. Ever. It’s an attenuated live virus vaccine, which means thimerosal would kill the virus in it. Even RFK, Jr. and Mark Hyman probably know that! Seriously, if Oz’s staff can’t get something that basic about vaccines right, what else did they get wrong? I think we all know: This entire segment and the fear mongering about thimerosal. Dr. Oz kept saying that he couldn’t figure out why thimerosal is still in vaccines and that “not one person” could give him a good reason. He must not have looked very hard.

Vaccination rates are plummeting in enough places to produce pockets of unvaccinated and undervaccinated children among whom outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases can start, thanks to antivaccine celebrities, the antivaccine movement, and, now I fear, Dr. Oz. Maybe this is the first step of his finally going all in. After all, he’s been criticized as a hypocrite and “vaccine charlatan” by antivaccinationists for telling people to vaccinate while his wife doesn’t vaccinate his own kids.