Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree: Privileged white males harming African-Americans with antivaccine propaganda

There’s always been a major thread of distrust of the medical profession in the African-American community, understandably so given the history of abuses such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which the natural progression of untreated syphilis was studied in African-American men for 40 years. It’s not just that experiment that’s responsible, either. During the time of slavery, slaves often served as the subjects of medical experimentation. Dr. Crawford Long, for instance, conducted most of his early experiments with ether on slaves, while Dr. Walter F. Jones used slaves to test a treatment for typhoid pneumonia that involved pouring boiling water on the spinal column. One of the more famous examples is that of Dr. Marion Sims, who is now considered the father of gynecological surgery. He perfected his techniques for gynecological surgery on slaves, after having addicted the women to narcotics in order to sedate and immobilize them postoperatively. He even performed the surgery repeatedly on the same women. The examples during and after slavery are numerous. Even today, there are large disparities in medical care disadvantaging African-Americans in terms of access to the most advanced treatments. Just last month a new study of medical students made the news that suggested that white medical students tend to rate the pain of an African-American patient as less than severe as the pain of a white patient in the same circumstance. Given that I practice in Detroit and slightly over half of my practice consists of African-Americans, I’ve seen this phenomenon myself. I do as much as a relatively affluent middle-aged white guy can to try to mitigate this distrust, but history is long, and old attitudes are not easy to overcome. That’s a major reason why investigators at our cancer center study doctor-patient interactions to try to identify behaviors that contribute to patient distrust.

Given this long and well-documented history, the last thing we need is something that can contribute to the worsening of the general distrust that many African-Americans feel toward the medical profession. That’s why it’s so despicable of Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree to throw gasoline on the fire with their antivaccine movie VAXXED or its promotion of the “CDC Whistleblower” myth that the CDC somehow “covered up” evidence showing that the MMR causes autism in African-American boys and of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to peddle the myth that thimerosal in vaccines causes autism (or that the MMR vaccine causes autism) to the African-American community with the help of the Nation of Islam. I discussed the “CDC whistleblower” case in more detail just yesterday; so I won’t recount that here in similar detail. For purposes of this post, the important thing is that the “CDC whistleblower” myth involves a false claim that the CDC covered up data from a study that showed a strong correlation between MMR vaccination and autism in African-American boys. Of course, it matters not at all that there was not a hint of a whiff of such a correlation in any other subgroup and that, in essence, Brian Hooker’s incompetent “reanalysis” of the study proved Andrew Wakefield wrong.

None of that matters to Del Bigtree, Andrew Wakefield, and Polly Tommey, who are furiously promoting their antivaccine documentary VAXXED, which tells the story of the CDC whistleblower. In doing so, they’re producing videos that range from hilarious to despicable. Before I get to how Wakefield and crew are spreading antivaccine lies and fomenting distrust of the medical profession among African-Americans, I can’t help but show you the ridiculous:

The interview starts out with misinformation, namely that the DeStefano et al study in 2004 was the last study looking at the relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism funded by the CDC, which is not quite true, as there was at least one more published in 2008, not to mention several CDC-funded studies since 2003 studying what became in the early 2000s the favorite antivaccine idea, the claim that thimerosal in vaccines caused the “autism epidemic.” Moreover, there were a lot of other studies not funded by the CDC that failed to find a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

Not surprisingly, Bigtree repeats the lie that William Thompson, the “CDC whistleblower,” accused the CDC of “manipulating data.” As I’ve explained many times, at worst (for the CDC) there was a scientific disagreement on whether to report a result (the result in African-American males) that was almost certainly spurious, a conundrum for which arguments can be made on both sides. At worst (for Thompson), Thomspon went off the deep end and personalized a relatively minor scientific disagreement. Moreover, contrary to what Bigtree said, Thompson never said there was a causal link. Indeed, he said the opposite. By the time Bigtree got to the pharma shill gambit and advocating an unethical “vaxed vs. unvaxed” study done, I was laughing at his idiocy. Yes, Bigtree is an idiot, but he is a useful idiot for Andrew Wakefield and a dangerous idiot for public health.

Here’s where the danger lies. Take a look at this Facebook video that Bigtree posted (YouTube link). It is of an appearance the VAXXED filmmakers made in Compton:

I sat and listened to the whole thing, all 55 minutes of it. Disappointingly, the Mayor of Compton, Aja Brown was in attendance. It was more than just having the mayor in the audience, however. The screening was free and the mayor sponsored it. Indeed, the Twitter feed for the City of Compton promoted it:

Yes, this session was supported by the City of Compton and clearly designed to target the African-American community with a story almost custom made to take advantage of the aforementioned distrust of the medical profession that runs rampant in the African-American community, particularly poorer African-American communities.To bolster that appeal, as has happened before for antivaccine rallies, the Nation of Islam was in attendance, and Rev. Tony Muhammad was there to give a talk. Local newspapers published pretty much all credulous accounts and reviews of the movie screening, like this one.

It all started out depressingly, with Andrew Wakefield invoking Nelson Mandela and his statement that some ideals are worth dying for. The wag in me can’t help but suggest that Wakefield act on that belief, but I know that would never happen. If faced with any sort of threat to his life based on his beliefs, I highly doubt that Wakefield would respond by doing anything other than acquiescing or running. Come to think of it, I doubt he’d even risk his wealth for his beliefs. That’s just the kind of guy Wakefield is. None of this, however, stopped him from invoking the CDC as a powerful and dark force not unlike Samaritan on Person of Interest intent on controlling people. He even invokes the ridiculous conspiracy theory that’s been going around about how shadowy pharma forces are killing “natural healers,” with antivaccine quack Jeff Bradstreet and cancer quack Nicholas Gonzalez being the most prominent members. (Never mind that Bradstreet committed suicide and Gonzalez appears to have died of a heart attack.)

There might be hope, though, as Bigtree makes some astoundingly ignorant arguments. For example, at around 35:00, after a little rant wondering why there aren’t more religious leaders lobbying for religious exemptions to vaccines (maybe because practically no religions have an objection to vaccination because their leaders know that vaccines are safe and effective, an objective good, and the only reason the Nation of Islam is willing to sign on with Wakefield is because it’s a fringe religion now associated with Scientology), Bigtree opines:

This entire country was founded on the First Amendment, on freedom of religion, on freedom of belief. But you want to know the craziest religion you ever heard of. Let’s take 13 different vaccinations. Think of a lottery ticket with five numbers. You mix those up all different ways. Your odds are millions that you’re going to come up with the answer. And when they tell you we’ve proven vaccines are safe, take 13 numbers and try to calculate all the ways those vaccines could be interacting inside of a child. Then make each child different races, different ages. There is no way you could ever do enough computations to prove those numbers land and prove something is safe.

The. Stupid. It. Burns. It. Burns. Real. Bad.

I’m sorry. There’s just no other way to put it. Does Bigtree have any idea how clueless he sounds? Even Wakefield, on the far left, looked as though he were either bored or biting his lip and looking away in embarrassment. Here’s a hint: vaccination schedules are not numbers, and they are tested for safety. Each new vaccine undergoes randomized clinical trials against the background of the existing vaccine schedule, leading to an iteratively tested vaccination schedule. Moreover, contrary to Bigtree’s mathematically and scientifically ignorant example, the vaccine schedule is evidence-based. All Bigtree is doing is making a completely inappropriate analogy. Of course, Bigtree is not antivaccine, as he likes to say. He just likens the current vaccination schedule to the “craziest religion you ever heard of” and bases that characterization on an example that does nothing but illustrate his innumeracy and scientific ignorance, while basically arguing that there is no way ever to demonstrate that the vaccination schedule is safe.

Unfortunately, this tack is likely to be more effective, as it got a much more positive response from the audience:

So we’re left with faith of a theory put out by the pharmaceutical industry and our doctors. We’re left with faith that the pharmaceutical industry that makes billions of dollars is actually looking out for our health, not for their stockholders and their bottom dollar. We’re left with faith that our doctors are actually looking into these studies done by the pharmaceutical industry themselves, done by the CDC and people who walk off and get better jobs with the pharmaceutical industry when they’re done. We’re left with faith that my baby needs a sexually transmitted disease injected into them on day one because it’s going to make them healthier somehow. And I’d say with faith like that we have to call medicine what it is. It’s a religion. And I should be allowed to deny that religion just like you can deny mine, and we have freedom of religion in this country, and we should be allowed to stand in that religion, wherever that takes us, fully vaxxed, semi-vaxxed, non-vaxxed, eating healthy food, eating Doritos, it doesn’t matter. It’s your choice.

Knowing the history of how the medical profession has treated African-Americans, I can see how this is a very powerful message, particularly in the context of a film that seemingly confirms the conspiracy theory that pharmaceutical companies are taking advantage of the African-American community through mass vaccination to the point of covering up evidence of harm to protect their profits. Coming from a dorky middle-aged white dude like Bigtree, this message might not have been so powerful—although the fact of fairly wealthy white people, one of whom has had success as a television producer, telling them that the wealthy white medical establishment is out to get them might actually have made it more powerful. Whatever the appeal of Bigtree as a messenger, immediately afterward, Rev. Tony Muhammad of the Nation of Islam got up to reinforce the same points and try to explain why religious leaders weren’t pushing harder for more religious exemptions. Not surprisingly, his explanation involved pharmaceutical companies buying off not just white politicians but black politicians as well. He even called them “sell outs” who should be brought up on “charges of treason” for “what’s going on with our boys” and ended by announcing that he and Minister Farrakhan would be holding the 21st anniversary of the Million Man March in Atlanta to “shut down the CDC.”

Worse, an African-American mother of an autistic child named Sheila Ealey, who was featured in VAXXED, followed up by urging the crowd to avoid medicine and take their children to chiropractors. She had also invoked the example of Dr. Sims, an example of the use of too much radiation on African-American patients in the 1960s, and, of course, the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment early in the Q&A as an example of why African-Americans should not trust the medical profession. She then directly linked the current day vaccine program to these medical atrocities, calling the “autism epidemic” that she blames on vaccines a “holocaust.” Given the audience, I can see how this would be disturbingly effective imagery, and it was. There was considerable applause when Ms. Ealey urged the crowd to take their children out of the schools and doctors’ offices and not get them vaccinated.

Of course, I also note, as I have before, that the frame of portraying vaccines and medicine as a religion is a powerful one for denying science. After all, science is based on evidence, experimentation, and careful observation. Religion is based on faith, with no evidence necessary. Indeed, faith is valued above evidence. When that’s the case, then facts don’t matter. Science doesn’t matter. clinical evidence doesn’t matter. If medicine and the vaccine schedule medicine recommends are a religion, then you don’t need a reason to reject them other than having a different set of beliefs. More importantly, if the frame is accepted it puts antivaccine pseudoscience on equal footing with real science, which is exactly why the frame has to be rejected and torn apart, which is what I’m doing here.

One more time, after reading Bigtree’s blather above, I have to state unequivocally: Del Bigtree isn’t antivaccine. He just thinks vaccines and medicine are a religion whose dogma is dictated by the pharmaceutical companies and priests in the CDC who leave to serve big pharma, aided by doctors who don’t care. He just thinks that the neonatal dose of the hepatitis B vaccine is “injecting a sexually transmitted disease.” It’s a common antivaccine trope that vaccination is “injecting disease.” It’s one that Bill Maher, for instance, has used. In my book, if you use that trope, you are antivaccine. Ergo, Del Bigtree is antivaccine.

So is Andrew Wakefield. Around 48:00, he is asked if vaccines are safe.

The mortality and the morbidity—that is, the illness associated with infectious disease—of virtually every infectious disease—measles, mumps, rubella, typhoid, chickenpox—was coming down dramatically before vaccines were ever introduced. The morbidity and mortality from measles had come down by 99.6% before vaccines were introduced. If we had not introduced vaccines, would they have come down to zero? We’ll never know, because we intervened with vaccines, and they claim it was vaccines that caused the improvement. It was nothing to do with vaccination. OK, that may have produced an incremental improvement. Are they necessary for life? Absolutely not!

Seriously? The claim that morbidity and mortality rates were going down before vaccines were introduced is a profoundly intellectually dishonest gambit that I like to call the “vaccines didn’t save us” gambit. (I also can’t believe it was over six years ago that I wrote about this gambit.) So is the claim that vaccines are not necessary for life. Obviously, they are not. Neither are antibiotics, modern antihypertensives, anesthesia, surgery, or any of a host of medical interventions that make our lives better and last longer. People lived thousands of years ago without all these things. Of course, in (for example) ancient Rome, half of them died before age 10, but people did live without antibiotics and vaccines. The point is, modern medical interventions, particularly vaccines and antibiotics, contributed massively to the increase in life expectancy that occurred over the last 100 years. As a society, we could live without vaccines, but why on earth would we want to, given that many of us would die who didn’t have to?

What Bigtree, Wakefield, and Tommey are doing here is particularly despicable. They clearly knew that the African-American community is more likely to be receptive to the message of VAXXED than average. So, fully using their privilege as affluent white males, they play to the distrust of the African-American community towards medicine to promote their film and its antivaccine misinformation. Even more despicable, Bigtree, Wakefield, and Tommey are targeting the very people who would suffer the most if there were a resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases in their communities, the very people whose relative lack of access to the highest quality medical care will result in more children suffering and potentially dying than there would be in the usual affluent white communities where antivaccine beliefs run rampant. If that isn’t cynical, I don’t know what is.