Nobody promotes antivaccine nonsense in my state…without receiving some Insolence


Readers who’ve been following this blog a while would probably not be surprised to learn that one of my all time favorite movies is Ghostbusters. In fact, it’s hard to believe that the movie is now 30 years old. It makes me feel so old, given that I saw the movie in the theater when it came out. Be that as it may, there’s a scene near the end of the movie, where an ancient god Gozer the Gozarian, takes the form of a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, tromping through New York City destroying things, all thanks to a stray thought by Ghostbuster Ray Stantz (played by Dan Ackroyd) that inspired the in response to the Gozer’s order to “choose” the form of the destructor. Seeing the Ghostbusters on top of the building that was the gateway through which Gozer found entrance to this reality, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man climbs on top of a church, caving in its roof in the process, as it climbs the building in its attempt to get at the Ghostbusters, prompting Peter Venkman, played by Bill Murray, to shout, “Nobody steps on a church in my town!” At which point the Ghostbusters to fire up their proton packs and go into action.

Even though I don’t care any more about the destruction of a church relative to the destruction of any another building of historical interest, I nonetheless understand where Venkman was coming from. There are some things that can’t be permitted on one’s home turf without a harsh response. I feel rather the same way about antivaccine loons in my state, and when I see them, I’m half tempted to echo Venkman, yelling, “Nobody spreads antivaccine misinformation in my state!”

Enter HealthCare Professionals for Vaccine Choice:

Formed in 2011, HealthCare Professionals for Vaccine Choice is working to secure vaccine exemptions for employees in the Michigan workplace. Doctors, nurses, therapists and other hospital employees are losing their jobs because they have to choose between having to take a potentially dangerous drug and their career. This is unacceptable. No one should be forced to take a drug as a condition of employment. We need your help to pass legislation ��?please join in our efforts.

Gee. Can you guess which “dangerous drug” HCPVC is referring to? Obviously, it’s vaccines. After all, most health care institutions, particularly hospitals and nursing homes, are indeed requiring their employees to get the flu vaccine every year and to have received the Tdap according to CDC recommendations as a condition of continued employment. This is a requirement of which I, like my good bud Mark Crislip, approve. Dr. Crislip refers to health care workers (HCWs) who refuse the flu vaccine as “dumbasses,” even regularly updating his classic article A Budget of Dumb Asses every October that gives a dozen reason why HCWs who refuse the flu vaccine are dumb asses (here’s the 2014 version) and I agree. In particular I agree with Dr. Crislip’s statement:

There is a tremendous amount of medical literature pointing to the safety and wide ranging benefits of the influenza vaccine as well as the morbidity and mortality that influenza inflicts on humans every year. Despite that information, when you are admitted to the hospital you have a greater than one in four chance that the HCW taking care of you is ignoring that information and going unvaccinated. So they are putting you and yours at risk for no legitimate reality-based reason.

The preponderance of data is clear: when health care workers are vaccinated against the flu, patient mortality declines.

I have long been of the opinion that you judge a person by the company they keep. If your health care worker is a big enough Dumb Ass to avoid the flu vaccine, in what other areas of medicine are they equally incompetent ? Do you want to drive in a car with no seat belts or air bag, whose brakes are of uncertain maintenance? Do you want you or your loved ones to be cared for by someone who is Dumb Ass enough to not get the flu vaccine, putting you and yours at risk when most vulnerable? Can you expect that person to do the rest of their job correctly when they cannot understand and implement a core competency of medicine? Not me.

Unfortunately, the HCPVC are, by Dr. Crislip’s definition, dumb asses. Worse, they’re dumb asses in my state, trying to mess up my state’s hospitals and promote the spread of disease. Nobody steps on vaccine science in my state, at least not without eventually getting a heapin’ helpin’ of Insolence, Respectful or not-so-Respectful, depending on the level of the offense and the my estimation of the scientific rehabilitation potential of the person spewing antivaccine pseudoscience. If they are potentially teachable, it’s Respectful Insolence. If they are not, well…

Unfortunately, a quick perusal of the HCPVC website reveals a whole lot of antivaccine misinformation. I mean, they even promote the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) and Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines (MOMV) on their website. The NVIC, as you will recall, is an organization founded and still run by the grande dame of the modern antivaccine movement, Barbara Loe Fisher. Promotion of vaccine pseudoscience, lies, and misinformation by Fisher through the NVIC has been featured on this blog on many an occasion, an example being her Vaccine Ingredient Calculator. MOMV, on the other hand, is a more recent discovery of mine. It’s a home grown antivaccine group in Michigan campaigning to make personal belief exemptions for vaccines for school easier to obtain and to fight efforts to make them more difficult to obtain. To attain its goal, it, too, spews antivaccine misinformation hither, thither, and yon.

Worse, on its FAQ, the HCPVC lists a veritable cornucopia of misinformation, linking to even more sources in the antivaccine crankosphere, for instance to claim that mercury in the flu vaccine is dangerous. For instance, the FAQ claims that “if a person receives 5 flu vaccines in a lifetime, he/she is 10 times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s,” linking to Hugh Fudenberg and, hilariously, a quack website promoting Royal Rife products, which contains an article on—you guessed it—Hugh Fudenberg and his claim that the flu vaccine causes Alzheimer’s disease if you receive more than five or ten in your lifetime.

Ironically, this is the same misinformation once promoted by Bill Maher, lo these nine years past, on his show. As I described at the time, Fudenberg was a collaborator and co-inventor with Andrew Wakefield who was involved with some very dubious treatments for autism that ended up costing him his medical license. He is the originator of the claim that the flu vaccine causes autism based on no research, at least none that I could find. At the time, the only article I could find in PubMed discussing this risk found exactly the opposite of Fudenberg’s claims, a possible protective effect. I’ve found nothing to contradict it since then.

Other bits of misinformation on the HCPVC FAQ include the perennial claim that the number of flu deaths per year (36,000) are hugely exaggerated. This is simply not true; that there is no evidence that HCWs are spreading flu to patients (again, also false); and that flu shots “don’t work to prevent the flu” (again, false). Then, on its “research” section, the HCPVC lists in support of the discredited idea that vaccines cause autism discredited research by the likes of Gayle DeLong, one of the worst such articles I’ve seen; articles on how to “boost your immunity” and lambasting the flu vaccine; an article by David Ayoub, he of the black helicopters; a post from everyone’s favorite antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism by Dan Olmsted; a report by Mark and David Geier; and a whole lot more. Oh, and I forgot to mention that the HCPVC also promotes the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons, the crankiest of crank physician groups, a group that rejects evidence-based medicine in favor of the superdoctor and has promoted the myth that shaken baby syndrome is caused by vaccines, leading to parents being falsely accused.

I tried to find out more information about this group, such as who is on its board of directors, information that any reputable group generally publishes on its website. No dice. All I could find out was that the President of the organization is named Barbara Skurnowicz. A Google search revealed little. Her LinkedIn profile describes her as an “independent information services professional,” which makes me wonder if she is even an HCW and, if not, why she is so fired up about flu vaccine mandates for HCWs to form this group. I also found her in something called the Eagle Forum listed as “National Leader for Vaccine Information.” I had never heard of the Eagle Forum before, but it didn’t take long to figure out that it’s affiliated with Phyllis Schlafly and that it espouses extreme right wing views, such as anti-immigrant policies, anti-feminist goals, and “marriage protection” (which is code in these circles for opposing gay marriage), describing its mission as “to enable conservative and pro-family men and women to participate in the process of self-government and public policy making so that America will continue to be a land of individual liberty, respect for family integrity, public and private virtue, and private enterprise.” Finally, I found a YouTube video in which she addressed the Fatima conference in 2013 about Moral and Ethical Questions: Vaccination Schedule:

It’s an hour long; so I don’t pretend to have watched anywhere near the whole thing. However, just skimming it showed it to be a lot like many other antivaccine lectures I’ve seen before, chock full of the usual tropes, such as fear mongering about mercury and aluminum, “fetal tissue” in vaccines (it was a radical “traditionalist” Catholic conference, after all), and, for all I know, probably more. Interestingly, the Fatima Conference, where this conference was held, was organized by a fringe, schismatic Catholic organization accused of virulent anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, the Fatima Center. More hilariously, the Fatima Center’s conference had geocentrists speaking at it alongside Skurnowicz. I kid you not. Catholic geocentrists.

Actually, I find it completely appropriate that antivaccinationists would be sharing a podium at a conference with geocentrists and Holocaust deniers (more). The sheer magnitude of the crank magnetism at that conference was astounding, and Skurnowicz fit right in.

In the end, I rather suspect that this “Health Care Professionals for Vaccine Choice” is a one-woman operation. Unfortunately, somehow Skurnowicz seems able to show up from time to time in the media as if she were anything other than an all purpose crank. Perhaps this blog post will show up high enough on searches for her name to warn local media the next time vaccine mandates for HCWs comes up as a story.

Like Mark Crislip, I believe that medicine is a calling and that we have an obligation to our patients that goes beyond our own personal desires and rights. That’s what being a doctor or a nurse is all about, and if you work in a health care setting in which you take care of patients, the same thing applies. As physicians and nurses, we promise to put our patients’ needs before our own when it comes to health care. Given how safe the flu vaccine is, with serious adverse reactions rare and no evidence of Alzheimer’s disease or any other chronic disease attributable to it, any health care worker, particularly physicians and nurses who refuse to take such an incredibly small risk to protect themselves and our patients without a valid medical reason why he shouldn’t be vaccinated does not deserve to be taking care of patients.