Occasionally, there are weekends when I settle down to crank out a post for Monday, and there’s nothing going on out there that’s getting me fired up. (It happens from time to time if you’ve been blogging for nearly 14 years.) So it happened last week, as I was perusing local news, medical sites, and quack sites for inspiration when I got a message with a link to an article of a type that should never, ever appear in a mainstream newspaper. Indecision about what topic to pick and writer’s block instantly faded away, and I knew what I had to do. The link was to an article the Health section of The Toronto Sun by someone I had never heard of before (or at least didn’t remember) named Dr. W. Gifford-Jones. The very title of the article, “What you may not know about vaccines” (Wayback Machine version at Archive.org here, given that—spoilers!—the paper was ultimately forced to retract the article), immediately sent up red flags.
Those flags were an accurate warning, as Dr. Gifford-Jones’ article was pure antivaccine propaganda, something that should, I repeat, never, ever appear in a mainstream newspaper. I suspect that even the editor knew that it shouldn’t run, because at the very end of the column, I read:
EDITOR’S NOTE: The column does not constitute medical advice and is not meant to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure disease. Please contact your doctor. The information provided is for informational purposes only and are the views solely of the author. See Docgiff.com. For comments; [email protected]
This is what we in the biz call a “quack Miranda warning.” In the US, the quack Miranda warning will also often include a sentence about how what is being described has not been approved by the FDA, but this is a Canadian newspaper. In any event, let’s just say that, whenever you see a quack Miranda warning, it’s not a good sign—quite the opposite, in fact. It’s a sign that what is being published is not supported by evidence. It’s a sign that the editor knew on some level that Dr. Gifford-Jones’ article contains a heaping helping of antivaccine pseudoscience, and it does. Let’s dig in.
Misinformed, not informed, consent
You can get a good idea from the very first paragraph where Dr. Gifford-Jones is coming from, and it’s not from a science-based place:
Every year readers ask me if I get flu shots. I reply, I don’t. I rely on high daily doses of vitamin C to build up my immune system. But I may be wrong. So, I’ve sought the opinion of experts in the field. Their primary message is that informed consent is vital.
Most people believe vaccines would not be advised unless researchers and doctors deemed them safe. But I’ve often stressed, there’s no such thing as 100% safe surgery. The same is true of vaccines. That’s why 3.6 billion dollars has been awarded to families due to the complications of vaccines.
I almost have to grudgingly admire Gifford-Jones for packing so many antivaccine tropes into such a short passage. Let’s unpack some of them. First and foremost, there’s the issue of “informed consent”. There is no doubt that informed consent is vital to any medical treatment, so that the patient understands as well as is possible why the treatment is recommended, what it entails, and what the benefits and risks are. Indeed, I get informed consent from patients on whom I’m going to operate every week, and I document it in my clinic note, in my operative note, and by having the patient sign an informed consent form.
However, what antivaxers mean by “informed consent” is not what most doctors mean when they refer to informed consent. Rather, it’s something that I like to refer to as “misinformed consent”. Informed consent is nothing without accurate information, and the information antivaxers want to provide to parents prior to vaccinating their children is anything but accurate. Indeed, the information antivaxers try to provide parents tends to vastly inflate the risks of vaccination and add nonexistent risks (e.g., vaccine-induced autism, sudden infant death syndrome, diabetes, developmental delays, asthma, Alzheimer’s and the like) that have never been linked to vaccines even in large epidemiological trials. (I can’t resist pointing out that in some cases it’s exactly the opposite; for example, SIDS risk might actually be lower among vaccinated children.) Antivaxers also do the opposite, downplaying the benefits of vaccines, claiming that they don’t work, and touting “natural immunity” obtained by suffering through the disease as superior to immunity due to vaccination. In portraying vaccines this way, they present a false risk-benefit ratio for vaccines that’s so unfavorable to vaccines that there’s no way a parent who believes the false narrative would consent to vaccinate their children. That is, of course, the idea.
So that’s the central trope of this article, presenting misinformed consent as informed consent, but there are others. For instance, the idea that taking high doses of vitamin C can “boost your immune system” sufficiently to make you immune to the flu is utter nonsense. Yes, there’s some evidence (not great evidence, but evidence) that vitamin C can slightly reduce the duration of colds, but studies have been inconsistent and, to me, most compatible with little or no effect. As for the flu, there are no good studies I’ve been able to find suggesting even a minor preventative effect against the flu.
Antivax anecdotes, not data
Then there’s the “$3.6 billion paid by the Vaccine Court” trope. Here’s a hint. The Vaccine Court was designed, if anything, to err on the side of paying out, as the Daubert standard for admissibility of expert witnesses isn’t always enforced, leading sometimes to “expert” witnesses who would never be allowed in regular courts. Speculation is permitted, and all that is required to potentially win a settlement is a “biologically plausible” mechanism, rather than a scientifically demonstrated mechanism. Also, it’s a civil court, and the standard of evidence for compensation is what some have called “50% and a whisker”. Moreover, compensation is automatic for so-called “table injuries” (known injuries that science attributed to vaccines listed on the Vaccine Injury Table). Also, think of it this way. The Vaccine Court has been in existence only around 30 years, during which time hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines have been administered. $3.6 billion sounds like a lot of money, but when considered over three decades and so many vaccine doses, it’s really not that much, which is why lawyers who represent parents who think their children have been injured by vaccines hate the Vaccine Court. Sure, the Court covers the complainants’ reasonable legal costs, but there’s no chance for truly massive payouts for the lawyers representing them. You’d think that if the Vaccine Court had paid out so much for vaccine injuries over the years, lawyers would be lining up to take these cases.
So let’s see what else Dr. Gifford-Jones has to say:
Here is a typical parent’s story. “My child was healthy, was given a vaccine and then something happened.” The occurrence is usually a neurological reaction due to inflammation in the brain that triggers problems such as autism, which has skyrocketed over the years. Or there’s a lack of coordination, sleep problems, seizures, severe allergic reactions and at times, death.
Yes, this is a typical story from parents who believe that vaccines have injured their child. It’s also confusing correlation with causation, not to mention that on a number of occasions when I examine these parents’ stories there isn’t even convincing correlation, such as when parents blame vaccines for medical problems that occur a long time after vaccination, a particularly common issue with stories of death or premature ovarian failure after vaccination with HPV vaccines. Many large epidemiological studies have failed to find a correlation with autism or these other health issues and vaccination other than rare allergic reactions, to the point where it is probably safe to say more than just that there is no evidence linking vaccines to these health problems. It is safe to say that, as far as science has been able to detect, vaccines do not cause autism or those other problems.
Help! Help! I’m being repressed!
Of course, Dr. Gifford-Jones feels persecuted for speaking out against vaccines, so much so that he has to preemptively warn about it:
Unfortunately, it’s become a medical sin for doctors to speak out about the negative effect of vaccines. In fact, the few who have the intestinal fortitude to do so are often labelled medical outcasts and sometimes punished by losing their job. So much for scientific fact!
Funny, but Gifford-Jones says this as though it were a bad thing. In reality, of course, doctors who spread medical misinformation about vaccines should be medical outcasts. The problem is actually the exact opposite of how Gifford-Jones portrays it. In actuality, the problem is that antivaccine doctors all too often suffer little or no professional consequence for spreading demonstrably false antivaccine misinformation. For example, look at how long Dr. Bob Sears spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about vaccines before he finally faced discipline by the Medical Board of California. Even now, he remains able to practice and unrepentant. All he has to do is to keep his mouth shut and practice according to the standard of care for three years, and he will have done his penance and be free to resume being an antivaccine pediatrician who compares school vaccine mandates to the Holocaust. No, the problem is not that doctors like Dr. Gifford-Jones suffer for promoting antivaccine views; it’s that they don’t suffer (much) for doing so.
Of course, Dr. Gifford-Jones doesn’t want you to think he’s antivaccine; so he does admit part way through his article that vaccines are “vital in preventing a number of infectious diseases and they do save lives.” That preemptive acknowledgment that maybe vaccines do some good does not mean that Gifford-Jones is not antivaccine. He is. He even continues to demonstrate his antivax views by going full “toxins gambit” on us:
So how do vaccines cause unintended consequences? It’s primarily due to what’s added to vaccines. For instance, some vaccines contain mercury, which is one of the most toxic ingredients known. Another additive, aluminum, is a known neurotoxin that can cause a toxic inflammatory reaction affecting the nervous system. Moreover, many people, including doctors, are unaware that there may be foreign DNA particles in vaccines!
Another frequent complaint is that vaccines are given too soon when young children are more susceptible to toxicity. For instance, in Norway, vaccines are not prescribed in the first two years of life. Contrast that to North America where newborns are routinely given vaccines such a hepatitis B.
Mercury in vaccines does not cause autism, and there hasn’t been more than traces of mercury in childhood vaccines in the US at least for at least 16 years, when the mercury-containing preservative that used to be in several childhood vaccines was removed. (Indeed, the observation that the prevalence of autism has continued to climb so many years after mercury was removed from childhood vaccines is an excellent natural experiment refuting a link between thimerosal and autism.) Aluminum in vaccines does not cause autism. The “foreign DNA” in vaccines is present at such a tiny concentration that it is vanishingly unlikely to cause a biological reaction, much less harm to the whole organism.
In which Dr. Gifford-Jones could use a fact checker
Hilariously, too, Dr. Gifford-Jones apparently didn’t even bother to check his claim on Norway’s vaccine schedule, which can easily be googled and shows that Norwegian infants get their first vaccinations at 6 weeks (rotavirus) and then rounds of vaccines at 3, 5, 12, and 15 months. Now, it is true that vaccination in Norway is not compulsory, but the Norwegian Institute of Public Health has an article on its website touting the highest vaccine uptake among two-year-olds compared to previous years. Doesn’t he bother to check his facts? At first I thought that maybe he meant to say that Norwegian babies don’t get the hepatitis B vaccine in the first two years of life (which is possible, given the variability of when this particular vaccine is administered in different countries), but that’s not true either. Norwegian infants get the hepatitis B vaccine at 3, 5, and 12 months of age. Seriously, Dr. Gifford-Jones, hire a fact checker—or at least go to the source whenever you hear a claim such as that Norway doesn’t prescribe vaccines for children under two years of age!
Keep those antivaccine tropes rolling!
And the tropes keep rolling along. Next up, the “too many too soon” gambit coupled with the “doctors don’t know vaccines as well as antivaxers do” lie:
Surely doctors would not advocate the benefits of vaccines without the knowledge they’re safe. But experts say this is part of the problem, namely they don’t know. During their years in medical school they receive very little training in immunology. Or, vitally important, never learn what’s actually in a vaccine.
Moreover, years ago there were just 3 vaccines. Now, by five years of age children can receive 46 or more vaccines. In fact, the message physicians receive from health authorities is, “Here is the vaccine schedule. Do it.” And some physicians have bluntly told parents, either have your children vaccinated or find another doctor. Namely, it’s my way or the highway!
The question of whether pediatricians should be able to “fire” parents who refuse to vaccinate their children from their practices is a complex one, with ethical arguments on both sides. However, I understand why some pediatricians do it. Antivaccine parents take up a lot of time and, if they still refuse to vaccinate, their children are potential disease vectors sitting in the waiting room every time the parents bring them in. As for the antivaccine myth of “too many too soon,” science doesn’t support the view that children are receiving too many vaccines.
Next up, Dr. Gifford-Jones thinks that vaccines might cause SIDS:
What worried me as I listened to authorities talk about vaccines was this recurring phrase, “We don’t know whether the vaccine triggered the complication.” As a surgeon I know post-operative complications happen and why they happen. With vaccines, they remain in the never-never land of “maybe”.
For instance, I learned of babies dying of SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). This has occurred 24 hours after a vaccine was given. Some authorities claimed the death was a coincidence. Maybe it was. But as one critic remarked, “If I hit my toe with a hammer, the cause of the soreness is usually the hammer.”
Again: No. Vaccines do not cause SIDS. This has been studied numerous times, and, if anything, vaccinated children might actually be at a lower risk of SIDS. I don’t care if a Nobel Laureate claims vaccines cause SIDS; they do not. Dr. Gifford-Jones is spouting nothing but antivaccine misinformation here. We also know that many of these “complications” of vaccination are not complications of vaccination at all. Many—albeit admittedly not all—of these questions have been studied, some, such as whether the MMR vaccine causes autism, extensively and repeatedly.
Finally, Dr. Gifford Jones finishes his antivaccine propaganda with a flourish of false balance:
As I researched vaccines, I discovered the heavy responsibility of providing the truth. No journalist, nor any doctor, wants to advise against vaccination and have a child die needlessly from an infectious disease. Nor do they want to see a child vaccinated and develop a life-long complication.
I expect criticism from readers of this column. I’m also not your doctor, but believe you should be aware of these facts. So I urge all people, particularly parents, to discuss vaccines with their doctor. Try to read both sides of the vaccine debate. Then if a complication occurs, there are no surprises. And in medicine, the best surprise is no surprise.
That part about no doctor wanting to advise against vaccination and see a child needlessly die of a vaccine-preventable disease contrasted with not wanting to see a child vaccinated and develop a life-long complication is peak false balance. Which decision is far more likely to lead to harm? It’s certainly not the decision to vaccinate.
As if that peak false balance weren’t enough, Dr. Gifford-Jones tries to inoculate himself against criticism by trying to claim he’s just about “providing facts” and letting the parents decide for themselves. Got it? He’s just providing “both sides” of the “debate”. The problem is that the “side” of the “debate” he’s telling is a load of pseudoscientific nonsense and there aren’t really “two sides” to “debate” here. Basically, Dr. Gifford-Jones is presenting pseudoscience, bad science, and fabricated vaccine risks as being equivalent to the real science that demonstrates vaccines to be safe and effective at presenting disease.
Who is Dr. W. Gifford Jones?
Now that I’ve dispensed with this horrible article, one question kept bugging me: Who is Dr. W. Gifford-Jones and why is he writing for The Toronto Sun? Perusing his previous columns didn’t show me anything particularly horrible, except that perhaps Dr. Gifford-Jones is a bit too credulous when it comes to claims for supplements. So I perused his website and found his bio:
Dr. Gifford-Jones (AKA Ken Walker) is a graduate of The University of Toronto and The Harvard Medical School. He took post-graduate training in surgery at the Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester, McGill University in Montreal and Harvard.
During his medical training he has been a family doctor, hotel doctor and ship’s surgeon. He is a Fellow of The Royal College of Surgeons and author of seven books.
His medical column is published by 70 Canadian newspapers, several in the U.S. and the Epoch Times which has editions in a number of European countries. He was Senior Editor of the Canadian Doctor, a regular contributor to the magazine Fifty Plus and other publications.
He was awarded a certificate of merit by The Mitchener Foundation for his efforts to legalize heroin to ease the suffering of terminal cancer patients. His Gifford-Jones Foundation donated $500,000 to establish The Gifford-Jones Professorship in Pain Control and Palliative Care at The University of Toronto Medical School. During his career he has travelled extensively to interview a number of internationally renowned scientists and researchers.
So this guy is a syndicated columnist who writes under a pseudonym? It’s odd that I’ve never heard of him before. After all, it didn’t take me long to locate a fair number of questionable articles about vaccines on his website. In fairness, in an article from 2006, oddly enough he seemed quite supportive of Gardasil. However, he really, really doesn’t like the flu vaccine:
The simple answer is that flu shots, although normally safe, are on rare occasions associated with minor or serious complications. So, why take the risk? Years ago I decided to rely on high daily doses of Medi-C Plus (available in Health Food Stores) to fight the flu. This daily use maintains a high blood level of C in the circulation. If flu strikes, immune cells can quickly withdraw C from this reservoir. They will then contain 100 X more C to fight an infection than is present in the blood.
Studies show most people, particularly those with diabetes, arthritis, gastritis or under stress have low amounts of C in the blood. This can fall as low as 10 percent! So if flu strikes immune cells have insufficient amounts of C to combat the infection.
This is basically the same thing he claimed in his Toronto Sun article. In another article, he laments that children are dying of the flu because health authorities have forgotten history that shows vitamin C can treat polio and influenza. (They can’t, as far as the science can tell.) In yet another article from this year, “Doc Giff” recommends multiple supplements instead of the vaccine to prevent the flu—that and 10 grams a day (!) of vitamin C. In yet another article, he credulously cites Stephanie Seneff, a computer scientist at MIT who’s become anti-GMO and anti-vaccine and thinks (erroneously) that she can do epidemiology and her belief that vaccines contribute to Alzheimer’s disease:
What about annual Flu shots? The elderly are encouraged to renew their flu shot every single year, but Seneff believes, contrary to other experts, that this is another major factor in the risk of Alzheimer’s disease as about half of flu vaccines contain mercury, a preservative, which is probably the most toxic heavy metal known. Moreover, she claims, the flu virus is grown on gelatin which contains substantial amounts of glutamate, a known neurotoxin.
Yes, Dr. Gifford-Jones appears to believe the words of a woman who thinks that GMOs will make half of all children autistic by 2025. Worse, The Toronto Sun published the article, too! I kid you not. Elsewhere, he thinks intravenous vitamin C would be effective in combatting Ebola outbreaks. When I encountered that article, suddenly I remembered! I have encountered Dr. Gifford-Jones before when he made these same claims in another article.
It turns out that Dr. Gifford-Jones is into a wide variety of quackery, including the claims that cell phone radiation causes cancer and that vitamin C plus lysine can prevent or reverse coronary artery disease. And guess what? He sells his very own supplement, Medi-C Plus, which contains vitamin C, magnesium, and lysine. Because of course he does.
So what we have here is a retired doctor who’s made quite the second career for himself selling supplements and somehow getting his medical column syndicated in 70 North American newspapers, the vast majority of them Canadian. Interestingly, I did not find Dr. Gifford-Jones’ antivaccine propaganda op-ed in 70 newspaper search results. I did find it in several, however. I also noticed that it has been taken down in all of them save one; the article is still available in the Canada Free Press. It’s good that the Toronto Sun and several of the other Canadian newspapers that originally published the article have since had second thoughts, but the newspapers should never have published such a bad article in the first place.
Worse, here’s a Tweet from the editor of The Toronto Sun announcing the decision to remove the article:
A number of medical professionals have pointed to inaccuracies in this opinion piece and it has been taken off-line. His opinion doesn’t reflect the editorial position of the Sun. Our coverage of vaccines has been balanced and we encourage people to get vaccines.
— Adrienne Batra (@AdrienneBatra) October 28, 2018
Don’t get me wrong. It’s very good that the offending article has been removed from The Toronto Sun, but what does Ms. Batra mean by mean by “balanced”? Whenever I hear the word “balanced” used in the context of vaccine coverage by the media, it’s almost always false balance that gives way too much credence to antivax misinformation—false balance of the type that Dr. Gifford-Jones tried to spin in his last couple of paragraphs.
Maybe the editors of The Toronto Sun haven’t learned anything after all.