One of the fixed beliefs of the antivaccine movement is that anyone who “questions” vaccines, believes that vaccines cause autism and do more harm than good, and refuses to vaccinate her child is a “persecuted” minority. Not only that, but they are the righteous minority, being persecuted by “hate groups” for their righteousness as they try to save the world’s babies from the horrors of vaccines, and the only reason that they are such a minority is because of the machinations of big pharma, the government, the medical profession, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC, and all of us medical blogger “pharma shills” whom our reptilian overlords pay to trash Andrew Wakefield and the antivaxers who worship him. Indeed, the way antivaxers view themselves is as the heroic underdog, the way that antivaxer Kent Heckenlively fantasizes that he’s Aragorn, Son of Arathorn, rallying the forces of Gondor for one last doomed stand in front of the Black Gate of Gondor to distract the Dark Lord Sauron’s all-seeing Eye so that the hobbits Frodo and Sam can reach the Crack of Doom to destroy the One Ring of power and save the world. On other occasions, I have encountered antivaxers who so seriously fancy themselves victims that they co-opt symbols of the persecution and slaughter of the Jews during the Holocaust. Indeed, antivaxers do love their Holocaust imagery when characterizing school vaccine mandates or any requirement that their child be vaccinated. These offensively overblown Holocaust analogies are a favorite of luminaries of the antivaccine movement ranging from Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. to Barbara Loe Fisher. Kent Heckenlively even once likened his plight to that of Anne Frank!
Because of this persecution complex that drives so much of what antivaxers do and believe, they often believe that they are the victims of “bullying.” I’ve described this phenomenon many times. To this, I often like to respond: “Bullying.” You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
Earlier this week, I saw a lovely example of this trope. Sure enough, it was Barbara Loe Fisher, the grande dame of the antivaccine movement and founder of the oldest antivaccine organization that I’m aware of, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), and on Tuesday she took to YouTube to whine about the words of Dr. Peter Hotez, whom I admire so much that I like to refer to him as the Paul Offit of Texas; in other words, a very vocal, fearless, and persuasive advocate for science and vaccines. I first took note of Dr. Hotez way back in 2009, when he spoke out about antivaxers. More recently, Dr. Hotez has been active sounding the alarm about the rising rate of nonmedical “personal belief exemptions” to school vaccine in Texas and the politicization of school vaccine mandates.
Helpfully, Barbara Loe Fisher provides a transcript, so that I don’t have to listen to the whole thing:
Many years ago when I was having a conversation with a senior official at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) during a public engagement meeting, we explored the reasons for why public health officials and parents of vaccine-injured children were at such odds with each other. I said it was because we disagreed about the science. He said, no, it was a disagreement over values and beliefs. Recently, a physician dean at Baylor University College of Medicine made it clear that it is a lot about doctors getting off on demonizing and bullying parents of vaccine injured children.
According to an article in the Duke Chronicle, Peter Hotez, MD, PhD gave a global health lecture at Duke University in which he called on medical scientists to “engage the public” to promote more financial investment into the development of more vaccines. 1 Apparently, he also called on them to counter what he labeled as the “anti-vaccine movement,” which he believes has been “propelled” because “anti-vaccine websites exist with names such as the National Vaccine Information Center.” The article reported that Dr. Hotez castigated politicians from the “peace, love, granola” political left, who believe that “we have to be careful what we put into our kid’s bodies,” and politicians from the political right, who tell doctors like him “you can’t tell us what to do with our kids.”
Notice how Fisher frames her post. She portrays herself as the advocate of science, who thinks that the reason there is such conflict between antivaxers and public health officials is because they disagree about the science; in other words, it’s a rational argument. While there is an element of that, the CDC official was closer to the truth, because, let’s be honest, it isn’t a “disagreement” about the science that drives antivaxers. Rather, it’s a selective reading and misrepresentation of the science by them, coupled with an easy acceptance of pseudoscience, as long as that pseudoscience confirms their beliefs that vaccines cause autism and a host of other conditions, disorders, and diseases, such as diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), neurodevelopmental disorders, and the general unhealthiness they perceive in today’s children. The CDC official knew, as I know, that there really isn’t a scientific disagreement over whether the childhood vaccination schedule is safe and effective and over whether vaccines cause autism. We know that it is and they don’t. The evidence on that front has become so overwhelming that I no longer hedge when I say that vaccines dont’ cause autism by playing scientists and saying that there is no association between vaccination and autism that we have been able to detect, meaning that if there is a link it must be incredibly small, given the number of large epidemiological studies that have failed to detect it.
Here’s the disingenuous but clever part. Fisher immediately pivots from accepting that much of the source of conflict between antivaxers and the public health community is based on values, but not because of her values. Oh, no. It’s because, as she puts it, doctors “get off on demonizing and bullying parents of vaccine-injured children,” using Dr. Hotez as an example. Before looking at the rest of Fisher’s little screed, let’s take a look at the Duke Chronicle article from three weeks ago to see what Dr. Hotez actually said. What struck me first and foremost is that his speech was actually a mea culpa for the scientific and public health community:
On Monday, Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine, gave the first lecture of the Victor J. Dzau Global Health Lecture Series. Hotez said he believes it is an obligation for scientists to engage the public, himself being an advocate for attention to poverty-related neglected diseases, as well as a supporter of vaccines.
As a critic of the anti-vaccine movement, Hotez’s actions have prompted a police cruiser to spend 24 hours in front of his house as protection. But he pinned some blame for the rise of the movement on the scientific community itself.
“Part of this is our fault. It’s not in [my generation of scientists’] DNA to engage the public,” Hotez said. “Eighty-one percent of Americans cannot even name a living scientist.”
I’d love to know where Dr. Hotez got that figure, as I’m a bit skeptical that the number is that high, but the point does ring true. I also fully agree that we as scientists have not been the greatest at engaging the public. Things do appear to be getting better, with more and more scientists and physicians discussing science for lay people on social media, but this is a relatively recent phenomenon, and there is as yet little in the way of academic incentives to take part in such activities.
I also can’t help but note Fisher’s hypocrisy in complaining about antivaccine parents being “bullied” by pro-vaccine scientists and doctors when those doctors routinely receive death threats, as Dr. Offit has and apparently Dr. Hotez also has, to the point where the police take it seriously enough to assign a police cruiser to protect him and his family. Now that’s bullying. That’s trying to silence someone through intimidation. Being a much lesser “luminary,” I myself have experienced a less severe form of this same tactic. For example, antivaccine “entrepreneurs” like Mike Adams has posted over 40 defamatory articles about me on his website over the course of two years, claimed to have reported me to the FBI and my state attorney general, and falsely tried to link me with an oncologist from southeast Michigan who bilked Medicare and Medicaid of tens of millions of dollars by administering unnecessary chemotherapy, in some cases. I’ll condemn doctors on “my side” if I see them going too far in criticizing the likes of Fisher or threatening antivaxers, but, quite frankly, I so rarely see anything resembling this that I can’t recall the last time I’ve had to say anything. Fisher, on the other hand, whines about being “bullied” and about Dr. Hotez’s absolutely correct characterization of the NVIC as an antivaccine group, but seems either blissfully unaware of the bully tactics on her side or OK with them.
Fisher goes on to complain:
But Dr. Hotez reserved the bulk of his venom for parents of vaccine injured children. Like a schoolyard bully who engages in name calling when he can’t come up with anything intelligent to say, he slapped the label “anti-vaccine” onto parents of vaccine injured children speaking about what happened to their children after vaccination. Then, he went further and viciously accused those parents of hating their children:
“Anti-vaccine organizations camouflage themselves as a political group, but I call them for what they really are: a hate group,” Hotez said. “They are a hate group that hates their family and hates their children.”
Reading the Duke Chronicle article, I certainly didn’t get the impression that Dr. Hotez was aiming his vitriol primarily at the parents who claim their children have been “injured” by vaccines. He attacked the antivaccine groups, like the NVIC, which, as much as Fisher denies it, is without a doubt an antivaccine group, as I’ve written about many times before. For example, the NVIC regularly accepts large donations from über-quack Joe Mercola to promote things like “Vaccine Injury Awareness Week,” to buy antivaccine ads for the CBS JumboTron in Times Square, or to air antivaccine material on Delta Airlines. On the NVIC website there is the “Vaccine Ingredient Calculator,” basically the “toxins gambit” on steroids designed to promote fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) about vaccines, as well as the “Vaccine Memorial,” which purports to memorialize all the children “killed by vaccines.” Basically, the NVIC is as antivaccine as they come.
Dr. Hotez is also correct about many antivaccine groups as disguising themselves as political groups. For instance, he mentions Texans for Vaccine Choice, an antivaccine political group rooted in conservative, anti-regulation, anti-government ideology that’s been unfortunately all too successful in stymieing legislation to tighten up requirements for personal belief (i.e., nonmedical) exemptions to school vaccine mandates and or extending vaccine coverage. I’ve discussed this group several times before, and similar groups before. I will quibble with Dr. Hotez on one issue, though. He is clearly trying to bend over backwards to be “balanced” when he castigates politicians from the “peace, love, granola” political left, who believe that “we have to be careful what we put into our kid’s bodies,” and politicians from the political right, who tell doctors like him “you can’t tell us what to do with our kids.”
Although, as I’ve said many times, antivaccine beliefs are the pseudoscience that spans political ideology, with no evidence that antivaccine views are more common on the left or the right, those antivaccine groups disguised as political groups are now overwhelmingly right wing, and the loudest and most dangerous voices from the antivaccine movement virtually all come from the right. The reason is simple and not related to the prevalence of antivaccine beliefs on the left or right. It’s because antivaxers have realized that they can pitch their message of “no vaccine mandates” to conservative, anti-regulation groups and politicians, and produce a compelling message linking “vaccine choice” and “parental rights” with “freedom.” There is no equivalent alliance or messaging on the left, at least to nowhere near the same extent, other than the occasional left wing politician openly voicing antivaccine rhetoric. In the process, many of these conservative groups, which were not antivaccine before, become antivaccine. It’s been an unfortunately wildly successful strategy, and “freedom,” “parental choice,” and “no mandates” have become antivaccine dog whistles. Indeed, I like to quote a libertarian senator, Rand Paul, on the issue of school vaccine mandates: “The state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.”
I do also have to admit that I’m a bit uncomfortable with Dr. Hotez’s labeling antivaccine groups as “hate groups.” My reason is not because I object to comparing some antivaccine groups to hate groups. Given the well-documented manner in which antivaxers compare pro-vaccine advocates to Nazis and fantasize about meting out retributive “justice” to them once “they” are proven correct and vaccines proven to be the horrific toxic waste that antivaxers portray them as, I can see the parallels. However,I do not believe that antivaxers hate their family or hate children, at least not in general. I do believe that there is an element of disgust and disappointment in all too antivaccine parents that their child is not “normal.” Disappointment is normal, but many of these parents, such as the ones who subject their children to “autism biomed” quackery that includes treatments as abusive as chelation therapy, bogus stem cell treatments, chemical castration, and even bleach enemas in the name of “recovering” their “real” child. On second thought, Dr. Hotez might just have a point here.
Of course, what really appears to have pissed off Barbara Loe Fisher is that Dr. Hotez criticized the NVIC directly in no uncertain terms:
In an email, he expanded on his personal feelings about the non-profit charity, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), founded by parents of DPT vaccine injured children, who have worked for 36 years to prevent vaccine injuries and deaths through public education and to secure informed consent protections in vaccine policies and laws. He said:
“The National Vaccine Information Center, is the National Vaccine Misinformation Center. It’s a phony website designed to intimidate and spread false and misleading information about vaccines. The NVIC is an important driver of the antivaxer movement and one that places children’s sic in harm’s way to perpetuate its twisted ideology.’”
I can’t disagree with a single word of Dr. Hotez here. I’ll admit that the NVIC didn’t start out as antivaccine. Indeed, Barbara Loe Fisher is to be commended for her work with Congress in the 1980s to help pass the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986, which set up the Vaccine Court to handle claims of vaccine injury. However, sometime, beginning in the 1990s or so, and accelerating since the turn of the millenium, the NVIC has become increasingly antivaccine, until today it is as antivaccine as such groups come, with Barbara Loe Fisher herself invoking Nazi and Holocaust analogies in castigating vaccine mandates, or, as I put it, Nazis, Nazis, everywhere, all wanting to vaccinate your child. As for the NVIC’s advocacy of “informed consent,” it’s really the advocacy for what I like to call “misinformed consent,” in which “consent” is based on a warped, twisted version of reality in which antivaccine misinformation paints a picture of vaccines as so dangerous and ineffective that consent based on that misinformation would be rational if parents don’t know any more.
As for “hate group,” Fisher opines:
In his interview for the Duke newspaper, Dr. Hotez chose to use the word “hate” four times in two sentences when he defamed the National Vaccine Information Center by calling it a “hate group.” Branding an organization a “hate group” is not an inconsequential action, morally or legally.
In the 21st century, the term “hate group” is most frequently used to describe groups of individuals associated with “hate crimes,” which are defined by state laws and include threats, harassment or physical harm. Hate crimes are motivated by prejudice against someone’s race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, sexual orientation or physical or mental disability. 11
Dr. Hotez didn’t call the NVIC a “hate group,” at least not alone. He referred to antivaccine groups in general as “hate groups” and mentioned NVIC in that context. There’s a difference Still, Fisher founded the NVIC; so I understand her fixating on his mentioning of her group. However, let me just point out that at least one aspect of a hate group that antivaccine groups do meet, namely threats, harassment, or physical harm. I then point out that police cruiser keeping watch over Dr. Hotez’s home 24/7 because the police clearly believe that threats of physical harm made by antivaxers against Dr. Hotez and his family are credible. I also note the multiple instances of threats made against Dr. Offit. Dr. Hotez was probably a bit too liberal with the use of the term “hate group,” but he did have a point. I also realize that Dr. Hotez has an autistic child himself, and, to antivaxers, parents of autistic children who do not believe that vaccines caused their child’s autism and passionately say so are viewed even more as enemies tha “run-of-the-mill” vaccine advocates.
As for “bullies,” let’s look at Barbara Loe Fisher herself, given that she’s been known to use a bit of legal intimidation herself in the form of a dubious libel suit (which was dismissed), just like her hero, the guru of the modern day antivaccine movement, Andrew Wakefield. Barbara Loe Fisher likes to cry “Bully!” and “Intimidation!” while she and other antivaxers portray themselves as “dissidents,” but in the end, those cries appear to be a case of projection, and her fellow antivaxers are just as much into intimidation as she is. Heck, some of them even bullied a bunch of high school students who had the temerity to make a pro-vaccine documentary.
And I haven’t even gotten into the violent rhetoric antivaxers direct at their opponents with disturbing frequency.