Thank you, Chelsea Clinton, for speaking out against Andrew Wakefield and driving antivaxers crazy

If there’s one reliable thing about antivaccine conspiracy theorists, it’s how they react to criticism. (Hint: It’s not good and generally involves as massively asymmetrical a counterattack as they can manage, sometimes with doxing, harassment at work, and personal attacks designed to poison one’s Google reputation.) That’s why there’s one thing that drives them particularly crazy, and that’s when a celebrity whom they can’t hurt espouses pro-vaccine views. For instance, take a look at this Tweet from Chelsea Clinton:

In her Tweet, Clinton is taking note of a measles outbreak in Missouri and Kansas:

St. Joseph Medical Center is among seven new sites where people may have been exposed to measles during an outbreak that has sickened 10 Missourians so far.

Ericka Beeler, a spokeswoman for St. Joseph, said the exposure occurred not in the 310-bed hospital’s inpatient unit, but in a pediatric practice that rents space on the medical center grounds at 1000 Carondelet Drive in south Kansas City.

“We sanitized everything appropriately and did everything we could once we were notified of the positive case,” Beeler said.

The patient with measles went through the main lobby of the medical center and used elevators to get to the pediatric practice, but Beeler said the inpatient tower has a separate entrance and elevators.

And:

The 10 cases in Missouri are not related to a separate measles outbreak that started in a Johnson County day care last month. That has sickened 18 Kansans (14 in Johnson County, three in Linn County and one in Miami County) so far and is the largest outbreak in that state since 1990.

The 10 Missouri cases include three students who attend Liberty Public Schools. Clay County Public Health Center has said everyone who was at South Valley Middle School, which has almost 800 students, on April 18 may have been exposed.

Now let’s unpack what Chelsea Clinton Tweeted. Basically, she said that she would never forgive Andrew Wakefield. My reaction, of course, is: Nor should she! Excellent! Remember, Wakefield’s case series of a mere 12 children (now retracted due to research misconduct) was the study that launched a thousand quacks. (Actually, it was many more than a thousand.) This armada of quacks was (and is) dedicated to the discredited idea that vaccines cause autism. To that end, they produced a form of quackery known as “autism biomed.”

Not surprisingly, antivaxers on Twitter were not pleased. They swarmed in Clinton’s mentions, just as anyone who has paid attention to their antics would have predicted. I can’t help but start with the most inadvertently funny response to Clinton of all:

Yes, nothing bolsters the credibility of your source like a big red “RETRACTED” stamped across the paper. Word to “Just the Cause,” I have read Andrew Wakefield’s original Lancet case series from 20 years ago. Multiple times. Let’s just say that it doesn’t provide any good evidence that the MMR is associated with autism, and it was fraudulent, to boot. That’s why The Lancetretracted it, albeit several years later than it should have. It’s also, in part, why Wakefield was struck off the UK medical register (i.e., had his medical license revoked). Not that any of that stops Wakefield admirers from citing and defending him at every opportunity.

Just the Cause doesn’t disappoint, digging herself in deeper:

I know why the paper was retracted. It was fraudulent! Next question…

Not surprisingly, there was more, of which I’ll list here a sampling:

How one can with a straight face say that Andrew Wakefield didn’t damage the autism community, I can’t fathom. His conspiracy mongering about MMR as a cause of autism has led to fear and loathing of vaccines among many parents of children with autism and, worse, led some of them to subject their children to rank quackery known as “autism biomed,” some of the worst examples of which include bleach enemas and chemical castration. Strictly speaking, the rest is true, but a highly incomplete and selective telling of the tale. Yes, Wakefield did “bring the subject to light,” but what he brought to light (MMR as a cause of autism) was, scientifically speaking, pseudoscientific bullshit. Yes, he did give some families living with autism a voice, mainly those who mistakenly equate autism with “vaccine injury.”

More kept chiming in:

Not surprisingly, that wretched hive of scum and antivaccine quackery, Age of Autism, couldn’t resist jumping in as well. This time around, it’s Kim Rossi (formerly Kim Stagliano), who spins Chelsea Clinton’s Tweet in the usual expected way as Chelsea Clinton Joins the Pro-Vax Injury, Lay the Guilt on the Vaccine Injured Village No doubt she thinks she’s being clever by riffing on Chelsea’s mom Hillary Clinton’s It Takes A Village, but the use of that phrase is so tortured and unoriginal as to be laughed at more than anything else, much like every attempt at wit on AoA. In any event, Rossi feels betrayed—betrayed, I tell you!—By Chelsea Clinton’s pro-vaccine advocacy, and can’t help but piling tortured metaphor upon tortured metaphor into her expression of betrayal:

How many of us defended Chelsea Clinton, the gawky, pre-teen, frizzy haired, adult teeth in the child’s mouth First Child when Bill Clinton was first elected? Leave her alone! She’s a child! Leave her mother alone! She’s First Lady! Chelsea was thrust into the same category as poor Amy Carter. Not as attractive as a Kennedy child in world where the Internet (invented by her father’s Vice President) was just starting to fire photos around the world faster than the clap spreads in a house of ill repute. Speaking of disease…

Which brings us to Chelsea’s recent Tweet gratuitous (not on your life, this is SCRIPTED and part of a larger agenda) attack on Dr. Andrew Wakefield who, some two decades ago postulated that science should look further into whether the MMR vaccine was possibly causing gut injury and related in some way to autism.

Of course, any pro-vaccine statement by a celebrity, government official, or otherwise important and/or famous person can’t be a result of that person’s actual belief that vaccines are safe and effective. Oh, no. It has to be scripted (or SCRIPTED, as Rossi puts it). Indeed, Rossi makes it political by invoking the frequent antivaxer trope of parental rights and attacking the idea that anyone other than the parents have any responsibility to assist with raising children. It’s a right-wing talking point that’s been repeated about Hillary Clinton’s book ever since it was published over 20 years ago, and it’s of a piece with Rand Paul’s famous Freudian slip, “The state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.” Here’s Rossi’s version, except that she adds a truly vile tortured metaphor to just the lame tortured metaphors elsewhere in her post:

Many years ago, her Mom, Hillary Clinton, then First Lady, told us that it takes a village to raise a child. That doesn’t mean the village owns our kids. We do not live in Shirley Jackson’s “village” of The Lottery. We are not collectively Tessie Hutchinson, here so that the villagers can stone us to death for our medical choices because, “That’s what we’ve always done.”

For those of you who haven’t read this particular short story, It’s a classic, a story that made such an impression on me that I still remember it well more than four decades after having read it in junior high school for the first time, a summary can be found here. (SPOILERS ahead.) Basically, it’s about a rural town that holds a lottery every year. The year of the story, everyone in the town gathers as usual, and designated representatives from each family in the town draw a slip of paper from a bin. The paper with a black spot on it indicates that that family is chosen for the second round, in which each individual member of the family draws a piece of paper. In this case the Hutchinson family representative draws the paper with the black spot. In the next round, every Hutchinson has to draw a slip of paper, and Tess Hutchinson (mentioned by Rossi) draws the paper with the black circle. At this point, each of the villagers picks up a stone and the villagers stone Tess to death.

Yes, you read it right. Rossi just likened vaccination to a story commonly thought to be about conformity gone mad that implied that in small communities like the one in the story there was a darkness lying under the idyllic surface waiting to be released. (Actually, there are several valid interpretations of the story; that’s part of what makes it so good. We don’t have to delve into them now, though, for purposes of this discussion.) One can’t help but think of this latter theme of hidden darkness in small towns in light of the election of Donald Trump. (And, no, I don’t care if you don’t like my briefly bringing up politics here.) Politics aside, Rossi really believes that vaccines are like the lottery in Jackson’s story, in which everyone participates but every year one of the participants must die a horrible death. Her choice of metaphor is a window into the warped thinking of an antivaccine activist.

Then, like Tess Hutchinson as her neighbors close in on her with stones, Rossi cries about how unfair it all is, while taking swipes at Chelsea Clinton’s “vanity” with backhanded compliments:

Chelsea blossomed into quite a pretty woman (thank you hair care products, from this I know.) I looked a lot like Chelsea as a kid. Big teeth. Frizzy hair. Gawkasaurus! I also blossomed into a pretty woman. We both have children. Except my daughters have severe autism. And their village is called special ed day programming.

She WON the Lottery. She’s rich beyond measure. Has two healthy kids. And can use her Twitter account to shame the village as she deems appropriate.

“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right.” (Tess Hutchinson’s final words before being stoned to death.)

Of course, one can’t help but note that, even if she isn’t as famous or wealthy as Chelsea Clinton, Kim Rossi is far from unfortunate. Like the denizens of AoA and many antivaccine activists, she’s white and appears to be well-off and well-educated. In other words, she’s privileged. She might not have won the Megamillions or Powerball lotteries, but she won a lottery compared to many in this country.

Which brings us to Del Bigtree, producer of Andrew Wakefield’s antivaccine propaganda “documentary” VAXXED, who is similarly unhappy with Chelsea Clinton:

His show is two hours long, but don’t worry. You don’t have to watch the whole thing to hear his rant about Clinton. It’s right near the beginning, near 1:45:

Well, once again, for some unknown reason, it appears that Chelsea Clinton has some obsession with Andy Wakefield.

Notice the framing. Clinton is “obsessed” with Andrew Wakefield. Somehow I doubt that that’s really the case, but if you criticize Wakefield more than once, in the mind of a conspiracy theorist like Del Bigtree you must be “obsessed” with him. After showing the Tweet, Bigtree continues:

I don’t know how often Chelsea Clinton thinks of Andrew Wakefield. I don’t know if it’s every time someone gets sick or just those that get measles. But for those of you who do not know who Andy Wakefield is, or what Andy Wakefield is, let me explain it to you. Andy Wakefield is actually a mythological creature that comes from folklore. He’s this elfin-like creature who comes in the middle of the night when children are sleeping and gives them measles.

Bigtree even includes a badly Photoshopped image illustrating his “joke,” which I captured from a screenshot on my computer:

Andrew Wakefield as the Measles Fairy

Andrew Wakefield as the Measles Fairy. I guess this is what passes for cutting edge satire for Del Bigtree. You’d think, though, that he could find someone who’s better at Photoshop.

Bigtree continues:

Now, of course I’m kidding when I say that, but the truth is that it’s just about that ridiculous. Every time someone gets measles, Chelsea Clinton wants to blame it on Andy Wakefield. This would be like me every time I see a child lose his job at McDonald’s or his first job mowing lawns saying I will never forgive Bill Clinton for passing NAFTA because that’s why people lose jobs. I mean, this type of connection is ridiculous. And I think it’s totally off base, Chelsea. The truth is that I don’t believe—and I know that you’re referring to the fact that people are not vaccinating because of Andy Wakefield. For those of you who don’t know who he is, he is the doctor who audacity to simply say that he recommended that people should get the measles vaccine by itself instead of the MMR, which grouped the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines together because tens of thousands of parents around the world were complaining that the MMR vaccine had caused their child’s autism, for simply recommending a better product, a single measles vaccine, he has been demonized around the world and his license came under attack and was eventually pulled away.

But, Chelsea, here’s the point. Do you really think this growing body of people who are not vaccinating their children, this question that’s in almost every pregnant mother’s mind when she goes to see her pediatrician for the first time, do you really think they even know who Andy Wakefield is? I don’t. The truth is that the reason that people are questioning vaccines is because of the tens of thousands of mothers that they’re finding on YouTube, on Facebook, on on Twitter that are all telling an eyewitness account of watching their perfectly healthy child regress into autism right after a vaccine, most often MMR or DTaP. Now those stories are credible because people believe real women, especially in this day and age. We no longer are getting away with “mothers are stupid, mothers don’t know better, women don’t know.” We are listening to real mothers, because they’re intelligent. They’re lawyers, they’re doctors, they’re psychiatrists, who are all telling the same story of the destruction of their child right after a vaccine. But unfortunately, in case Chelsea, you do not take women for their word because maybe perhaps they’re too stupid or desperate to know what’s really happening with child, I guess you only listen to people with a PhD after their names. So I want to add a few to your list because I think that these are important PhDs and if you’re not going to forgive Andy Wakefield, perhaps you’re going to have to stop and say, “I don’t forgive these scientists, either.”

Before I discuss the scientists who so impress Bigtree, let me just point out that it is indeed appropriate to blame Andrew Wakefield for his role in promoting the MMR scare. He was not just “recommending” a different vaccine (which, by the way, he had a financial interest in). He blamed MMR for autism, period. Sure, he was measured in his language in the actual Lancet case series, but that’s almost certainly because peer reviewers don’t let authors be too declarative. Everywhere else, though, he was all about MMR fear mongering, and he wasn’t subtle about it, either. Heck, he’s even made an antivaccine propaganda movie with Del Bigtree!

Not surprisingly, the scientists Bigtree praises are all ones we’ve heard of before. First on the list: Luc Montagnier. At this point, I couldn’t stop laughing. Montagnier, as you recall, was the co-recipient of a Nobel Prize for discovering HIV as the cause of AIDS. Since then, he’s become a major crank. He believes in homeopathy. He’s published pseudoscience on DNA “teleportation.” He promoted autism quackery involving the long term administration of antibiotics for…well, I’m still not sure why. He falsely believes that vaccines cause SIDS. I recently learned from a French journalist who called to talk to me about him that Montagnier of late is getting into chronic Lyme disease quackery, because of course he is. Not surprisingly Bigtree is enormously impressed with the fact that Montagnier won the Nobel Prize.

Next up, Bigtree mentions Theresa Deisher. Regular readers are well familiar with her. She’s the antiabortion activist who thinks that DNA from the cell lines derived from aborted fetuses used to grow vaccine virus stocks is getting into the brain and causing autism. It’s an utterly ridiculous hypothesis, both highly implausible and not supported by any evidence that she’s been able to produce. He also credits her with having discovered adult stem cells in the heart, which he refers to as the greatest medical discovery in his lifetime. Uh, no:

She left CellCyte after the firm made claims for its research into a heart treatment based on adult stem cells which were accused of being unwarranted. Subsequently, the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the firm and reached an agreement with the CEO whereby the latter agreed, without admitting wrongdoing, to hold no executive positions with publicly traded companies for five years and pay a $50,000 fine.

Third on Bigtree’s hit parade: Christopher Shaw. Yes, the man who has tried his best to blame aluminum adjuvants in vaccines for autism and behavioral problems, while trying to blame Gardasil for death. His science, such as it is, on vaccines is uniformly execrable.

Fourth on Bigtree’s hit parade: Christopher Exley. I’ve discussed how awful his science trying to blame aluminum in adjuvants used in vaccines for autism is before. It’s really bad.

Fifth up, Anthony Mawson, he who published a risibly bad (and unkillable) piece of “epidemiology” (now retracted) claiming that unvaccinated children are healthier.

Sixth is Andrew Zimmerman. Longtime readers might recognize him as having glommed onto the Hannah Poling case a decade ago to promote pseudoscience claiming autism is due to vaccines in patients with mitochondrial disorders. He’s mined the “oxidative stress as a cause for autism” well ever since.

Bigtree’s rant goes on longer than I really wanted to deal with, but you get the idea. Each and every scientist he cites is a promoter of autism pseudoscience well known to those of us who’ve been paying attention to the antivaccine movement more than a few years. Bigtree even cites an open-label phase I study of cord blood stem cells that reported improvement in autistic symptoms as slam dunk evidence that autism is not genetic because if it were cord blood wouldn’t have helped, not considering that this study provides no compelling evidence that it did, given that it was unblinded and single arm. He rants about big pharma (of course). He attacks Brian Deer, the dogged investigative journalist who uncovered Wakefield’s fraud, as a “reporter who worked for Rupert Murdoch.” He condescendingly explains things incorrectly to Chelsea Clinton, saying that Andrew Wakefield, standing with more and more scientists, is no longer alone, but that he “fears” that Clinton will be alone if she keeps attacking the great sainted Andy. Finally, he concludes with a nauseatingly overwrought plea to Chelsea Clinton to “join us.” It is a plea that, I know, will rightly fall on deaf ears.

In other words, Chelsea Clinton made antivaxers like those on Twitter who responded to her, Kim Rossi, and Del Bigtree lose their minds, if they ever really had them in the first place. And for that, I thank her.