The ACIP, Paul Offit, and harassment by antivaxers

When I first started writing about the antivaccine movement, lo, these 14 years ago or so, one thing that I noticed immediately that one of the favored tactics of its members is to attack critics. While I do still blog under a pseudonym now and my real identity is one of the worst-kept secrets in the skeptical blogosphere, back then I still took my pseudonym seriously. I realize now that I shouldn’t have bothered given how poor a protection pseudonyms are, but it was only months before antivaxers and other quacks outed me and starting harassing me at work. It’s how they rolled. It’s how they still roll. Only now, if anything, they’re worse. Not only do they do their damnedest to out skeptical bloggers who use a pseudonym, but they’ve diversified their targets. Now they harass scientists at public events and show up in force at meetings like the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP).

Here’s an example. Late last month, as part of his book tour for his book, Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians, and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Information, Dr. Paul Offit appeared at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. As most of my readers know, Dr. Offit is a pediatrician and vaccine scientist who co-invented a vaccine for rotavirus and has been a tireless champion for childhood vaccination. As a result, he’s received unending abuse from antivaxers, up to and including credible death threats. As part of the audience of around 120 in attendance was a large contingent of antivaccine activists, including the antivaccine blowhard who has none of Andrew Wakefield‘s unctuous charm but all of his arrogant obnoxiousness, Del Bigtree. Bigtree, of course, is known for flamboyantly invoking the Founding Fathers and saying that people should be willing to die to oppose school vaccine mandates, but, more importantly, he produced the antivaccine propaganda movie VAXXED with Andrew Wakefield directing it.

What happened at the National Press Club was, alas, predictable:

Offit has been known to trail throngs of anti-vaccination protesters in his wake, and the Headliners’ Book Rap was no exception. Before the event, anti-vaxxers passed out literature questioning his science and motives. Numerous audience members repeatedly disrupted the interview, shouting questions and accusing him of lying and taking money from pharmaceutical companies.

“I’m sorry people are upset I made money,” he said, referring to his co-invention of the vaccine for rotovirus, a disease that killed some 2,000 people world-wide every day until widespread inoculation occurred in 2013. Pharmaceutical companies, he noted, have the resources to develop a vaccine.

“I didn’t spend 26 years in a lab with white mice and no windows to make money,” Offit said. “I did it to help people. I work in a hospital. I hate seeing children get sick and die. And yet I get accused of being part of some giant conspiracy.”

The event’s moderator, Club Vice President Alison Kodjak, asked Offit about the negative public reaction to his support for vaccines. “It’s shocking to me,” he replied. “All I do is represent the science in a compelling and accurate way.”

That, of course, is all you have to do to attract the ire of antivaxers. I myself have been on the receiving end many times, and I haven’t done anything nearly as awesome as invent a vaccine, as Paul Offit did. I’m just a blogger, which goes to show that just communicating good science is enough to bring down the wrath of cranks like antivaxers. Perusing Twitter as the Washington Press Club event was occurring, I learned that Del Bigtree was being an obnoxious ass, while other antivaxers criticized a provaxer for taking pictures and videotaping the event, all while they themselves were doing a live Facebook feed of it. Before the talk started, Bigtree also handed out what he referred to as a “white paper” that appeared to be nothing more than scripted questions for antivaxers to ask.

Rene Najera, a pro-vaccine advocate who attended the talk, described it thusly:

As the talk began, the moderator tried to stick to talking about the book, but the anti-vaccine activists wouldn’t have it. They flooded the moderator with questions – copied from the script and written in cards, as was required by the hosts – about different conspiracy theories on vaccines.

Calmly and with plenty of examples to back up his claims, Dr. Offit responded to many of the questions asked by the crowd through the moderator. However, there were several instances where the leader of the group interrupted Dr. Offit, to the point where the leader of the group was asked to remain quiet (for the third time) or leave. Others continued interrupting, with another man in the audience asking Dr. Offit to disclose his earnings from the rotavirus vaccine. To that, Dr. Offit responded that he didn’t have to disclose anything, that it wasn’t any of the man’s business. (This response was met with some applause.)

That’s another reason why I admire Dr. Offit. I’m nowhere near as good at controlling my sarcasm in response to idiocy. Dr. Offit’s ability to stay civil in such circumstances is almost preternatural, with rare exceptions. For instance, when I met the Gnat, who showed up at a DC-area talk I gave five years ago, the guy totally creeped me out.

Dr. Offit is a thoughtful guy. He’s also classy to a point that I can’t match in that he even shook the hands of a number of antivaxers before the beginning of his talk. and in the wake of his Washington Press Club appearance, he wrote an op-ed entitled What a vaccine scientist facing angry anti-vaxxers wishes he had said. In it, he cast a withering eye on his own performance, noting what he wished he had thought quickly enough to say, noting:

Before the interview began, Kodjak took the precaution of asking the audience for written questions that she would ask me in order to keep the conversation civil; unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. Some activists started shouting at me; one asked how much the pharmaceutical industry was paying me.

I think I did a reasonable job of handling the shouting. But here’s how I could have made my point clearer:

This was followed by several points that he wish he had gotten across clearer, including how in 1976 epidemiological studies were able to detect an incidence of Guillain-Barré syndrome after swine flu vaccination of 0.0001%, showing that, given how rare Guillain-Barré was aftr vaccination how epidemiological studies detected it anyway, epidemiological studies should be able to detect a correlation between vaccination and autism, a vastly more common condition. Read his whole article. It’s worth it.

Another example will be coming up in February, with the upcoming meeting of the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). As I’ve discussed before, ACIP is the committee charged with creating the CDC-recommended vaccine schedule, and it’s an antivaccine myth that ACIP is a tool of the pharmaceutical industry whose sole purpose is to push vaccines on the children of unwilling parents. Indeed, ACIP and other CDC committees have very stringent rules designed to prevent conflicts of interest, and industry representatives do not have a vote. Still, none of that has stopped antivaxers from trying to flood ACI meetings with bogus questions about vaccine safety. Moreover, I’ve learned from various people in the know that antivaxers have been becoming more and more obnoxious about trying to disrupt ACIP meetings.

Indeed, there’s a Facebook group called Inundate the CDC ACIP Meetings, and, yes, they have a page called Inundate February 2019 CDC ACIP. The “About” section says:

I have been going to the CDC’s ACIP meetings and I wanted to make something more specific to the meetings themselves where all can keep up with when they are, when to register, where, share photos, comments, and videos from our presence there. We have got to keep showing up and we have got to get larger in force.

The person running the FB page is someone named Lynette Marie Barron, who describes herself as an “Advocate & Activist for Vaccine Truth. Radio Show Host 💻 & Business Owner!” (Any time, you see someone describe themselves as an “advocate for vaccine truth,” just substitute the word “antivaxer” for the phrase. It’ll be more accurate. A quick look at her Twitter feed reveals that she hasn’t Tweeted in nearly two years, but when she did, oh boy! She posted some seriously ridiculous antivaccine nonsense and retweeted Mike Adams. She has a YouTube channel for her Forsaken Generation radio show, which feature lots and lots of antivaccine misinformation. Not surprisingly, she did an interview with the VAXXED crew in which she describes her mission to tell ” the story of her family’s fight to spread the word about vaccines and the injury to her daughter, Jasmine.”

The posts on the Inundate the CDC ACIP Meetings are lovely, too. For instance, I didn’t know that Snoop Dog was an antivaxer:

Elsewhere, someone named Thomas Milcarek posted “See you in three months, Mr. Proffit” (antivaxers derogatory term for Dr. Offit). Later he wrote:

I hope to make it. If I keep telling myself I will it will help me do what is necessary to make it. 😉 Just remember, though I totally support what you women did in having lunch with Dr. Profitt, I will have a different way of talking to this guy. I will not be so to speak, so gentle with a guy who I think is killing and maiming children with his way of doing things. I myself almost died from the TDaP vaccine leaving me suicidal for 2 years at least and it has left me with one wandering blind eye also from Ischemic Stroke. So I also have a very Personal Perspective on these issues let alone the deep anger I have for all the beautiful children his policies are Harming.

No wonder so few vaccine advocates want to put themselves out there. If you don’t end up being libeled on a blog with a couple million visitors a month (as Mike Adams has done to me), you can expect that antivaxers will try to show up at any public event you are at in order to harass you. Indeed, my biggest fear earlier this year when Dr. Offit gave a talk at my medical school at my invitation was that antivaxers would find out about it and try to get in to disrupt it. (Fortunately, there is security at the medical school.) If you are involved in making vaccine policy, you might even get death threats, as has happened to Paul Offit.

This is who the antivaccine movement is. So what else would you expect from a movement that traffics in violent memes involving fantasies of revenge and defense, with people like Del Bigtree invoking the Founding Fathers and revolution while telling his followers who own guns and believe that the Second Amendment is there so that the people can rise up against tyranny that “now’s the time” for guns while likening school vaccine mandates to what the Nazis did to the Jews during the Holocaust? Sure, most of it’s huffing and puffing for their followers, but as we have learned, all it takes is a handful of people who take the rhetoric seriously—or even just one.

All of this is why I admire Dr. Offit and those who speak out for vaccines. I’m just a humble blogger, and, compared to many of them (particularly the women, who often face major misogyny from antivaxers), the abuse that I’ve endured is endurable. At least, it has been thus far.