Vaccine Injury Awareness Week 2018: Barbara Loe Fisher and Joe Mercola bring the antivaccine pseudoscience a month early

Well, it’s that time of year again. Flu season is upon us, and it’s time to get vaccinated. I got my flu vaccine yesterday. I asked for extra thimerosal, as I always do. Unfortunately, the nurse administering the vaccine didn’t get the joke, and the version of the flu vaccine I got was thimerosal-free anyway. It might be time to retire that particular line of humor, as I did jokes about becoming autistic the day after the vaccine, the latter of which, I now realize, were insensitive and not particularly funny. Unfortunately, given that most of the flu vaccines out there are thimerosal=free now and there hasn’t been any thimerosal in childhood vaccines other than the flu vaccine since around 2002, most health care professionals not directly involved with or interested in the antivaccine movement don’t get the joke any more. Be that as it may, for several years now, with the arrival of fall, unfortunately, also comes the arrival of another antivaccine campaign. Specifically, I’m talking about the yearly “awareness week” dreamt up by the grande dame of the antivaccine movement, Barbara Loe Fisher, and her current quack patron, Joe Mercola, who’s been dropping big donations to Fisher’s group, the Orwellian-named “National Vaccine Information Center” (NVIC) for several years now. Yes, it’s “Vaccine Injury Awareness Week”

I first noticed the silliness in 2010, when Fisher and Mercola proclaimed the first week in November to be “Vaccine Injury Awareness Week.” The next year, they were back. Not content with just a week this time, they declared October to be “Vaccine Injury Awareness Month.” Back then, antivaccine activists appeared to be trying to glom onto the prominence and popularity of Breast Cancer Awareness Month (which, by the way, usually brings out its own collection of quacks, which should provide me blogging material for next month) by co-opting it to their pseudoscientific cause of increasing the “awareness” that autism, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), shaken baby syndrome (a misdiagnosis for vaccine injury, if you believe antivaxers!), allergies, diabetes, asthma, autoimmune diseases, and a whole panoply of other conditions are in reality “vaccine injury.” (Amazing those vaccines are, aren’t they, that they can cause so many bad things, at least in antivaxers’ minds, such as they are!) I didn’t pay much attention to “Vaccine Injury Awareness Month” until three years later, when it once again penetrated my consciousness for some bit of nonsense or other (actually, a whole lot of nonsense.) In any event, in the past there was always a reason why antivaxers’ pathetic “demonstrations” at the CDC often took place in the month of October, and I’m sure there’s a similar reason why One Conversation, the panel “discussion” that antivaxers tried to trap me into attending as the token provaccine advocate, is also scheduled for July. (Unfortunately, they did manage to entice three others.) I also can’t help but note that Shelly Wynter, the host of the “panel,” emailed me the other day to try to entice me to call into his radio show. Given that it was a 6-10 AM time slot and my job has me doing things then, I ignored his request.

So what are Fisher and Mercola up to this year with “Vaccine Injury Awareness Week.” Well, the same ol’, same ol‘:

Barbara Loe Fisher is the cofounder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). In this interview, we talk about influenza and pertussis vaccine failures, the business of vaccination and how you can stay healthy this flu season. On the upside, no vaccine exemptions in any state were lost this year, which makes it the third year in a row that we’ve been able to protect exemptions that allow you to follow your conscience or religious beliefs when it comes to vaccination.

Unfortunately, the antivaccine movement does have some juice. I’ve written about it before, including specific examples in my own state, where my own state representative and senator both pander to antivaccine cranks like those who make up Michigan for Vaccine Choice with a pointless “informed consent” bill and a bill designed to gut the requirement that parents seeking vaccine exemptions for their children attend a state-mandated education session, and in Texas, where antivaxers wield real influence and thus far have successfully blocked all efforts to tighten the requirements for nonmedical “personal belief exemptions” to school vaccine mandates. Personally, I don’t think that preventing more states from making their vaccine exemption process more difficult or from eliminating nonmedical exemptions is anything to be proud of, but I’m funny that way.

In any case, there’s a brief video of Joe Mercola interviewing Barbara Loe Fisher included:

Notice how Mercola points out that you will be “deluged” with promotions to get the flu vaccine, as though this were a bad thing. It’s not. He’s also deluded or lying when he claims that there are “far more effective, less expensive, and less risky alternatives.” Not surprisingly, he then pivots to parrot the antivaccine lie that the flu is not a big deal, that it’s not a major public health problem, that it doesn’t result in the deaths of tens of thousands every year because of its complications, peddling the nonsense that there are no mortality data on influenza collected for adults. Yes, it is true that the total mortality due to influenza ends up being an estimate every year. That’s because most cases of the flu are never confirmed with serology testing and most deaths are due to complications from the flu, not the flu itself. Mark Crislip wrote up a nice explanation of the numbers ten years ago, where he discusses, quite frankly, the uncertainty in the estimate that around 36,000-56,000 people a year die of the flu in the US, a number roughly on par with the number of people who die in auto collisions. He also discussed the “assumptions” that Mercola disparages. Of course, Mercola would like to make the mortality figure as small as possible, because he wants to persuade you not to vaccinate; so he tries to make it sound as though the only influenza deaths that “count” are the ones in which the diagnosis was nailed down by serology. Dr. Crislip explains how in the real world we know better, and I like his analogy: “So we using a 2 megapixel camera to take a snapshot of influenza deaths, but the picture is going to be a reasonably accurate representation of the impact of the disease.” He also points out how, given that influenza causes a relatively small percentage in overall deaths during its season, no one outside of an epidemiologist would notice it.

Then there’s Barbara Loe Fisher:

What a lot of people don’t stop to think about in the midst of all this advertising is that vaccinologists developed vaccines. Vaccinology is the science of vaccines. Vaccinologists do not understand how vaccines cause immunity in the body. They don’t understand how an infection causes immunity in the body.

This is one of those statements that are sort of true, but lack enough detail to be intentionally deceptive. Yes, we don’t fully understand how diseases and vaccines cause immunity in the body. However, we do understand quite a bit, contrary to the impression Fisher leaves, which is that you know nothing, Jon Snow. (Sorry about that.) Of course, her purpose is to paint vaccine scientists and infectious disease doctors as a bunch of ignorant bumblers, as she goes on to say:

They’ve always had a problem with making vaccines that are effective and also safe, because they don’t understand the biological mechanisms for vaccine injury and death. This is especially true for influenza vaccine, because influenza virus mutates rapidly. It’s constantly changing.

Yes, the flu vaccine is a tough one. It’s very hard to make, and sometimes scientists guess wrong about the strains that will be circulating in any given year, leading to years when the vaccine isn’t very effective. There’s no doubt that a universal flu vaccine would be better, and that’s an area of active research. Indeed, the solution to the variable efficacy of flu vaccines every year is not to stop using flu vaccines, but to develop such a universal vaccine.

Also, it’s true that there have been occasional problems with vaccine safety, such as what happened in the Cutter incident, but the overall history of vaccines is of amazingly high levels of safety and, depending on the disease, efficacy that ranges from excellent (e.g., for the measles) to so-so (e.g., influenza).

It’s also true that most flu-like illnesses are not caused by the influenza virus, but Fisher and Mercola seem to think that vaccine scientists don’t realize that and take that into account in their estimates of flu deaths every year. It’s as though they hold vaccine scientists in such contempt and themselves in such brilliant esteem that they think they’re the only ones who try to take noninfluenza flu-like illness into account when estimating flu mortality statistics.

Particularly risible is this passage:

The bottom line here is — going way back to smallpox vaccine — they haven’t really stopped to do the science. The science is still in its infancy. It’s like they’re guessing when they make these vaccines, because they don’t have correlates to immunity,” Fisher says.

“They do not understand how the vaccines act in the body, at the cellular, molecular level,” Fisher says. “Now, some of this science is starting to be done. But these vaccines are being used by millions of people around the world without basic science knowledge.

People think [the vaccines] have been thoroughly tested. But they have not … They’re simply producing more and more vaccines without really understanding what they’re doing. This has been my take after 36 years of looking at the issue.”

More like that would be her biased take after 36 years, during which she evolved from a vaccine safety advocate to a real antivaxer. This is an appeal to ignorance, in which she makes it sound as though vaccine scientists are a bunch of bumbling, ignorant idiots who are recklessly charging ahead with dangerous vaccines out of ideology, even though they don’t understand anything about immunity. It’s pure bullshit, and bullshit of a kind that really irritates me. Again, just because there are a lot of things we don’t understand about the immune system doesn’t mean we understand nothing (or even close to nothing) about how disease causes immunity, how vaccines work, and the like. Indeed, one of Mercola’s own examples shows how we’re trying to understand better how vaccines work:

On a side note, albeit an important one considering our topic, researchers recently made a very interesting discovery: With enough NK cells in your system, you will not contract influenza.9,10 As reported by Live Science,11 a specific gene called KLRD1 “could serve as a proxy for a person’s levels of natural killer cells.”

KLRD1 is a receptor gene found on the surface of NK cells, and the level of KLRD1 found in a person’s blood prior to exposure to the influenza virus was able to predict whether that individual would contract the flu with 86 percent accuracy.

That’s all very nice. We certainly do need better correlates of immunity, and maybe someday in the future, after enough science has been done, we’ll be able to test levels of some of these markers and tell people who are lucky enough to be immune to the flu that they don’t need the vaccine. In the meantime, the flu vaccine is the best we have.

Of course, Mercola is about nothing if not about selling his supplements and “natural remedies,” making his next pivot very predictable. After a tiresome section on adverse reactions, in which Mercola and Fisher invoke the dreaded “toxins gambit,” going on about the dreaded thimerosal, and “vaccines using chicken eggs or genetically engineered dog kidney or army worm cells; vaccines that contain squalene-type adjuvants, which have been associated with autoimmune disorders, and vaccines that are ‘high dose’ and contain four times the amount of antigen as the standard vaccine” (you know going on about things that let her falsely portray vaccines as “dirty” and “contaminated”), Mercola goes into “natural” mode, touting vitamin D supplements, exercise, and sleep. Of course, no one would argue that getting enough sleep and exercise is a bad thing, least of all me, but it’s not going to protect you from the flu. Nor is will eliminating sugars and processed foods from your diet. It’s all part of the alternative medicine world view that if you get sick it’s your own fault for not doing all the “right things” correctly.

Mercola and Fisher conclude with a bit about “informed consent” for Vaccine Awareness Week. Of course, I’ve written about this many times before, including during last year’s “Vaccine Awareness Week.” (I’ll give Fisher props for avoiding the gratuitous references to the Nazis, the Nuremberg trials, and eugenics. Well done! Nicely toned down from 11 on the Batshit Crazy-O-Meter!) What he and Fisher really mean is misinformed consent, in which consent (mainly refusal) is based on misinformation that vastly exaggerates the risks of vaccines and downplays the benefits. To Mercola and “Fisher,” “informed consent” is a diversion, something that sounds noble and just, designed to hide their true pseudoscientific antivaccine agenda. When their “informed consent” is taken in context with the actual information that they want to base it on, “informed consent” becomes a weapon to frighten parents into not vaccinating.

So Mercola and Fisher conclude with—what else?—a plea for cash:

From September 23 to 30, we launch Vaccine Awareness Week. With aggressive efforts by pharmaceutical companies, medical trade groups and government to restrict or eliminate all personal belief vaccine exemptions in the U.S., it is critical for you to act now to protect your legal right to make informed, voluntary vaccine choices.

Thankfully, the nonprofit National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) provides the public with independent, well-referenced information on vaccines and advocates for vaccine safety, and informed consent protections in the public health system. This educational charity’s mission is to prevent vaccine injuries and deaths through public education and to secure and defend your legal right to exercise voluntary, informed consent to vaccination.

There’s no doubt that Fisher is a true believer in the cult of antivax. Mercola might also be a believer, but he’s also far, far more about the cash, which is why it’s obvious to me that this whole “Vaccine Awareness Week” is nothing more than a promotional gimmick to try to gin up donations to the NVIC.

Same as it ever was.