False balance about vaccines rises from the grave…again

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Imagine, if you will, a time machine capsule going all the way back to the earliest days of this blog, back in 2005 and 2006. Now consider the antivaccine movement, which somehow I became very interested in very early, an interest that continues to this day. Do you remember one theme that I kept hitting again and again? Besides the pseudoscientific quackery often promoted by antivaccinationists, that is? That theme was false balance. Back when I first started blogging, no matter what the angle of the story, when the press reported about the topic of vaccines—or the topic of autism, for that matter—the story would almost always contain a quote from an antivaccine activist or even full interviews with the likes of Jenny McCarthy. Yes, I’m referring to the false balance the press often provided on stories about vaccines.

Those were heady days for the antivaccine movement. It got to the point where in one sense I used to dread every April, because I knew that during Autism Awareness Month the antivaccine loons would come out to play. We”d see the likes of J. B. Handley, Jenny McCarthy and her then beau Jim Carrey, Andrew Wakefield, and various other luminaries of the antivaccine movement featured on various talk shows as though they had something worthwhile to say to juxtapose with what real experts say. In another sense, as much as I hated this, from a blogging standpoint I kind of used to look forward to April, because I knew I’d have stuff to blog about, but the false balance was irritating to me and many other pro-science advocates.

Then something happened. It seemed to coincide with the complete implosion of Andrew Wakefield’s then lucrative career as the public face of the antivaccine movement, in which first he was stripped of his UK medical license, then his infamous 1998 Lancet case series that sparked the MMR scare was retracted, and then he was basically fired from his position as the medical director of Thoughtful House, the antivaccine quack clinic dedicated to “recovering” autistic “vaccine-injured” children. False balance started to go away. Oh, sure, it still pops up from time to time, but it appears to be much less frequent than it did ten years ago, or even five years ago. News stories do the “false balance” thing far less frequently, apparently having finally realized that in some scientific issues there are not two sides of an issue and that citing or interviewing antivaccinationists for “balance” is akin to interviewing geocentrists for stories about astronomy, HIV/AIDS denialists for stories about AIDS, or moon hoaxers for stories about NASA ande space exploration. You’d think that during a major measles outbreak like the Disneyland measles outbreak that’s still raging the press would be even more careful not to give false balance to the antivaccine side.

You’d be wrong.

First, there was this awful article in the New York Times by Adam Nagourney and Abby Goodnough from a week ago entitled Measles Cases Linked to Disneyland Rise, and Debate Over Vaccinations Intensifies. In amongst the rest of the article discussing the Disneyland measles outbreak, I was disheartened to find

Organizations that have led the campaign of doubts about vaccinations suggested that it was too soon to draw such a conclusion. The groups cautioned parents not to be pressured into having their children receive vaccinations, which the organizations say have been linked to other diseases. Health professionals say those claims are unfounded or vastly overstated.

“It’s premature to blame the increase in reports of measles on the unvaccinated when we don’t have all the facts yet,” said Barbara Loe Fisher, the president of the National Vaccine Information Center, a group raising concerns about inoculations. “I do know this: Fifty-seven cases of measles coming out of Disneyland in a country with a population of 317 million people is not a lot of cases. We should all take a deep breath and wait to see and get more information.”

A handful of doctors seem sympathetic to these views. Dr. Jay Gordon, a Santa Monica pediatrician who has cautioned against the way vaccines are used, said he had “given more measles vaccines” than ever before but did not like giving the shot to younger children.

“I think whatever risk there is — and I can’t prove a risk — is, I think, caused by the timing,” he said, referring to when the shot is administered. “It’s given at a time when kids are more susceptible to environmental impact. Don’t get me wrong; I have no proof that this vaccine causes harm. I just have anecdotal reports from parents who are convinced that their children were harmed by the vaccine.”

Oh, bloody hell! Citing Barbara Loe Fisher? Seriously? She’s the founder of one of the oldest antivaccine organizations currently in existence. She’s the friggin’ grande dame of the modern antivaccine movement, and here the NYT is citing her alongside real scientists and doctors like Dr. Jane Seward, the deputy director of the viral diseases division at the CDC and Dr. Eric G. Handler, the public health officer for Orange County. As I’ve discussed on more occasions than I can remember, Barbara Loe Fisher spews pseudoscience and quackery about vaccines with the worst of them, having even collaborated with über-quack Joe Mercola.

The article gets worse than that, though. Barbara Loe Fisher wasn’t enough. Oh, no. Next up, Dr. Jay, who’s been getting his posterior handed to him in the comments of this post and this post. A week ago, he was being interviewed by the NYT and said:

A handful of doctors seem sympathetic to these views. Dr. Jay Gordon, a Santa Monica pediatrician who has cautioned against the way vaccines are used, said he had “given more measles vaccines” than ever before but did not like giving the shot to younger children.

“I think whatever risk there is — and I can’t prove a risk — is, I think, caused by the timing,” he said, referring to when the shot is administered. “It’s given at a time when kids are more susceptible to environmental impact. Don’t get me wrong; I have no proof that this vaccine causes harm. I just have anecdotal reports from parents who are convinced that their children were harmed by the vaccine.”

I have only one question for Mr. Nagourney and Ms. Goodnough: what the hell? If Dr. Jay doesn’t have any evidence to support his viewpoints other than his confirmation bias-laden anecdotes to support his “concerns” that vaccines are given at a time when kids are susceptible to environmental impact and that the MMR vaccine causes harm. He even knows that there’s no scientific evidence, but he keeps repeating the same information that’s not just wrong but spectacularly wrong.

And the NYT gave him a national outlet for spreading fear about vaccines. Worse, so did CBS News, which featured an interview with Dr. Jay himself just two days ago.

It’s a painful interview to watch. Worse, Dr. Jay pulls the old antivaccine trick of trying to convince CBS viewers that the measles is no big deal. He out and out says that he doesn’t think that the measles outbreak “poses any risk to a healthy child.” Seriously, he said that. In fact, in response to a question about a child with measles walking into his office, Dr. Jay doubles down:

If somebody with measles walked into Dr. Gordon’s office, 90 percent of the unvaccinated people who come in contact with them would get measles. I asked Dr. Gordon to explain how that type of contagion isn’t a risk.

“You just said it, they’d get measles,” Dr. Gordon replied. “Not meningitis, not the plague, not Ebola, they’d get measles. Measles is almost an always a benign childhood illness.”

Ah, yes. Dr. Jay is repeating once again a variant of argumentum ad Brady Bunchium, just as he did four years ago. His arguments were dumb then, and they’re even dumber now in the middle of an outbreak. As I pointed out, measles is not a benign disease, contrary to Dr. Jay’s delusions otherwise. The past and present rebuke Dr. Jay for his delusions and tell him he is wrong, wrong, wrong.

We also learn from the interview that Dr. Jay has signed hundreds of personal belief exemption forms. In response to a question over whether he feels any personal responsibility for helping to bring measles back, Dr. Jay becomes even more delusional:

“Individual parents making that decision are not the ones bringing back measles,” answered Dr. Gordon. “Measles isn’t coming back. We have 70 cases of measles right now and we have 30 million Californians.”

Yes, that’s how it starts, fool. The number of cases can be zero. It should be zero. Measles had been all but eliminated from the US, until the last few years when pockets of non-vaccinating parents drove MMR uptake rates below the level of herd immunity in areas where the patients of Dr. Jay (and, of course, Dr. Bob) live. The elimination of measles is an achievable goal, an achievable goal being undermined by useful pediatrician idiots to the antivaccine movement like Dr. Jay. Yes, that’s not Respectful Insolence. It’s not-so-Respectful Insolence, but it’s what Dr. Jay deserves right now.

Indeed, if you don’t believe me, then check out Dr. Jay’s Twitter feed. I did, and I was utterly appalled at his recent activity. Take a look:

And:

Which is, of course, an example of Dr. Jay’s monumental ignorance on the topic of measles. After all, it’s not the overall vaccination rate over the entire state that predisposes to outbreaks. It’s the low uptake in localized areas that drive MMR uptake down to the point where herd immunity is weakened to the point where outbreaks become possible. As I’ve said before, it’s not surprising that there are outbreaks in California, because there are large pockets of unvaccinated children providing the raw material for such outbreaks.

He also bears a share of responsibility for things like this:

Carl Krawitt has watched his son, Rhett, now 6, fight leukemia for the past 4 1/2 years. For more than three of those years, Rhett has undergone round after round of chemotherapy. Last year he finished chemotherapy, and doctors say he is in remission.

Now, there’s a new threat, one that the family should not have to worry about: measles.

Rhett cannot be vaccinated, because his immune system is still rebuilding. It may be months more before his body is healthy enough to get all his immunizations. Until then, he depends on everyone around him for protection — what’s known as herd immunity.

But Rhett lives in Marin County, Calif., a county with the dubious honor of having the highest rate of “personal belief exemptions” in the Bay Area and among the highest in the state. This school year, 6.45 percent of children in Marin have a personal belief exemption, which allows parents to lawfully send their children to school unvaccinated against communicable diseases like measles, polio, whooping cough and more.

Which has led to:

Now Krawitt and his wife, Jodi, have emailed the district’s superintendent, requesting that the district “require immunization as a condition of attendance, with the only exception being those who cannot medically be vaccinated.”

Carl Krawitt provided me with Superintendent Steven Herzog’s response. Herzog didn’t directly address their query, instead saying: “We are monitoring the situation closely and will take whatever actions necessary to ensure the safety of our students.”

That’s right. Thanks to antivaccinationists, aided and abetted by pediatricians like Dr. Jay Gordon and Dr. Bob Sears, there are parents of children with leukemia who are terrified to send their children to school because there are too many children with philosophical exemptions to school vaccine mandates.

This is what scientifically ignorant pediatricians like Dr. Jay have wrought. How pediatricians like Dr. Jay and Dr. Bob can live with themselves, I don’t know.

I just don’t know.

Most of all, I don’t know what the hell CBS News and the NYT were thinking when they decided that Dr. Jay has anything of value to say about vaccines.