Vaccine advocate Blima Marcus learns the hard way just how low antivaxers will go

Believe it or not, for once I had a really busy day in the operating room on Tuesday. (Given that I’m primarily academic and research, this doesn’t happen as often as it used to.) Because of that, I was pretty beat by the end of the day, too beat to put together anything that I considered of sufficient quality for the blog. It’s unfortunate, but it happens from time to time. This time it led to me falling asleep on the couch shortly after 9 PM, a situation that’s not conducive to producing the Insolence, either Respectful or not-so-Respectful, that you know and love. In any event, those of you who’ve been reading a long time know that one thing I really detest is an antivaccine physician like Dr. Jack Wolfson, but even more so an antivaccine pediatrician like Dr. Bob Sears, or Dr. Paul Thomas, the latter of whom is a “rising star” (if you can call it that) in the antivaccine movement. I also detest antivaccine nurses, and it’s that that brings me to my topic for today, an advanced practice nurse at NYU named Blima Marcus. Here’s how I first learned about her, from a video posted by antivaxer Hillary Simpson called The Marvelous Mrs. Marcus. It’s video of Blima Marcus speaking at a Vaccine Education Seminar in Lakewood, NJ on November 26:

And here’s the video on a page I had never heard of before, VaXism:

And here it is on YouTube.

Notice how the video is edited. That will become important as this discussion continues, because all might not be as it seems. On the other hand, some of what we see on the video does appear damning even without context. What’s really going on? Is Blima Marcus really antivaccine? On first glance, it looks bad. Let’s dig in and find out.

First, though, you might remember Hillary Simpson from a recent post I did about her. Basically, she founded the “Crazy Mothers” Facebook page, in which she cleverly appropriates the term sometimes used to disparage antivaccine moms and makes it her own. If you want to get an idea of what I’m talking about, check out a cringe- and vomit-inducing video that riffs on an old Apple Computer ad known as “Here’s to the Crazy Ones,” the ad that started launched Apple’s iconic “Think Different” ad campaign:

Of course, Simpson’s version of the ad substitutes antivaccine cranks for all the geniuses, artists, and rebels in the 20 year old Apple ad. So, instead of seeing Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Muhammed Ali, Alfred Hitchcock, Pablo Picasso, etc., we see…Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.? Suzanne Humphries? J.B. Handley? Andrew Wakefield? Del Bigtree? Rev. Tony Muhammad? Polly Tommy? Ack! I can’t take any more, but I’m still going to make you watch this video:

OK, I apologize. That really is cringe-inducing, isn’t it? I think it’s even more cringe-inducing than the video Simpson made of her freeform rap about vaccines and her child. (Let’s just say, Eminem, she ain’t.) I cringed so hard the first time I saw Simpson’s version of Apple’s Here’s to the Crazy Ones that people thought I had tetanus. Fortunately, I’m up to date on all my vaccinations.

It turns out that Blima Marcus, DNP ANP-BC RN OCN is an oncology nurse practitioner at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and an adjunct professor of nursing at Hunter College. If you watch that video of Blima Marcus above, you’ll see what at first glance looks like a litany of standard antivaccine tropes. In the very first shot, Marcus is shown saying that she knew nothing about vaccines until ten days ago, which seems very odd, and how she “gave herself a crash course on it with the help of a lot of my nurses,” which is even odder. If that were the case, why would she be speaking with parents at a vaccine education event? That doesn’t seem right. Why not, for instance, have a pediatric nurse practitioner, someone who’s knowledgeable about vaccines and even administeres them in her practice every day, address this group of mothers, instead of someone who had, if that snippet is to be believed, not known much about vaccines until ten days ago?

Next up, we see Marcus saying that she thinks that physicians are “negating a lot of what women see in their children” and that the thinks that “physicians are trying to pretend that vaccines never cause harm.” She also states that “doctors will automatically tell the mothers that it’s not from the vaccine” and that she believes that there are genetic issues that can predispose to a vaccine doing “terrible damage.” She even repeats an antivaccine trope about how death rates from these “horrible diseases” were on the decline even before the vaccines were introduced, an antivaccine trope that I like to call the “vaccines didn’t save usgambit. On the other hand, she did correctly point out that the rates weren’t declining, but fewer were dying of the diseases because of better medicine; so she could very well have been countering the “vaccines didn’t save us gambit.”

Elsewhere, Marcus talks about shedding, but in a fairly straightforward manner, and it seems to me that this could have been an attempt to explain why vaccine shedding is not the horrific danger that antivaxers paint it as. At this point, I was starting to get a little suspicious that all was not as it seemed. Then Marcus started talking about toxins, relating how as a cancer survivor she didn’t want to take any more vaccines, wanted to be “natural,” and didn’t want to vaccinate her child and didn’t give her daughter the hepatitis B vaccine until she turned two. She even admitted that “vaccines terrified” her and how she delayed vaccination for her children. But then she also stated how, in retrospect, she thinks she just had postpartum anxiety.

Then I saw her bring up formaldehyde and how she had never known that vaccines had formaldehyde. Then there was a fast cut of her saying it “didn’t make sense” and talking about the flu shot and Guillain-Barré syndrome. At this point, I started to become really suspicious that there was some highly selective editing going on here. That suspicion deepened as I watched her talk about mercury poisoning as causing serious neurological symptoms without mentioning vaccines and then mentioning fetal cells without mentioning vaccines. Then the last segment shows her touting cannabis oil for…it’s not clear what.

So what’s going on here? Certainly there are some statements in that video that on the surface sound a bit damning, but then there are parts that look clumsily and selectively edited, such as the segue from Marcus talking about how she hadn’t know that there was formaldehyde in vaccines (without mentioning vaccines) to talking about the flu vaccines. (Formaldehyde, by the way, is present at such tiny quantities in vaccines that the formaldehyde produced by normal metabolism far outstrips the amount in any round of vaccines.)

Then I saw this:

So Blima Marcus is now publicly complaining that the video was deceptively edited to misrepresent her position. Given the fundamental dishonesty of many antivaxers, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if this were true. Still, I asked myself: Is there anywhere else we can look to see if she was truly misrepresented? It turned out that there is. Not long ago, Blima Marcus co-authored an article with another nurse, Sarah Levine, BSN, RN, for The Lakewood Scoop entitled The Uneducated Teaching the Unvaccinated. It is brutal, almost Orac-level brutal, in its condemnation of antivaxers. I like it:

The regional measles outbreak has sparked major controversy within the Jewish community. Heavily-populated Jewish communities are seeing dozens of cases of the measles, and it’s only getting worse. Confirmed cases in Chicago occurred after a family traveled to Lakewood with a newly vaccinated child who didn’t yet have time to develop immunity. This child contracted the measles in New Jersey, returned to Illinois, and exposed as many as 80 children in a daycare.

Some may point to a variety of reasons as to why the measles epidemic is so concentrated in Orthodox Jewish communities. This article will focus on the the biggest one: lack of education leaving people vulnerable to misinformed, devious, and outright propaganda efforts which attempt to paint vaccination as a dangerous and money-driven policy.

Anti-vaccination propaganda is led by uneducated and clearly biased Orthodox men and women in our communities.

If I were a Jew living in a Jewish community and writing about antivaxers, I couldn’t have put it better myself. I also learn from the article that apparently Marcus is a member of the Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association Vaccine Task Force:

The Orthodox Jewish Nurses Association, a national group of frum nurses, received many requests for information regarding vaccines and its safety. A group of 30 nurses, with varying professional degrees and credentials, formed a Vaccine Task Force. The goal of the task force is to examine where frum people were receiving their misguided vaccine information, what the content was, and to provide proper education and allow for question and answers on the topic of vaccines and its safety.

Our findings are both astounding, yet unsurprising.

We learned that the Akeres Habayis hotline offers vaccine lectures delivered by ill-reputed anti-vaxx activists. One nurse called in and was appalled to hear vaccine information shared by a Binyomin Rothstein, a Maryland physician whose license was revoked after a decade of probation for practicing subpar medicine – including treating patients for illnesses such as pneumonia and heart attacks with injections of vitamins and injections of hydrogen peroxide. Toni Bark, another frequent lecturer on this hotline, is a holistic practitioner who sells beauty products online. Bark was discussing the (nonexistent) link between vaccines and infant mortality rates.

Of course, I’ve discussed Toni Bark before and her antivaccine pseudoscience and quackery, but I haven’t heard of Binyomin Rothstein before. He sounds like an “integrative medicine” physician.

The rest of the article is equally brutal against antivaxers. For instance:

The founders of Akeres Habayis also publish and distribute a propaganda pamphlet called the Vaccine Safety Handbook: P.E.A.C.H. Magazine – Parents Educated and Advocating for their Children’s Health. This comforting and benign sounding pamphlet is actually a collection of virulent propaganda against vaccines and the entire medical system. The Task Force received a copy and found it full of outright lies, misleading graphs, and inaccuracies. Quotes in this pamphlet are taken out of context, statistics are twisted and distorted, and most of the sources were found to be openly biased. Furthermore, some of the information in the pamphlet has been taken word-for-word from anti-vaccination websites, implying that the distributors of the pamphlet made no efforts to vet or substantiate the information they regurgitate.

It truly is the blind leading the blind.

And so it is. I might have to look into this “hotline” and the WhatsApp courses Akeres Habayis offers that the OJNA tried to infiltrate to see what sort of misinformation is being taught. I must admit that I had had doubts about Blima Marcus based on some of the things she was captured on video saying. Her article above, however, makes me very much more inclined to accept her explanation of what happened. She’s pro-vaccine and was trying to counter misinformation in the Orthodox Jewish community.

So here’s what I think happened. Blima Marcus agreed to appear at a vaccine education event in Lakewood after Thanksgiving. In trying to debunk common antivaccine tropes, she repeated some of them. To win the mothers’ trust and make a connection so that they would trust her, she related some of the events in her own life, including her previous fear of vaccines and how she had been a vaccine-hesitant mother. Normally, that’s an excellent strategy to win over a potentially hostile audience, but it does have a risk. We now see from the video Simpson shared what that risk was. There was someone there who was dishonest and recorded her on a cell phone camera. That same person selectively took bits of her talk and answers to questions and deceptively edited them together.

Now, here’s the thing. While Marcus is clearly the victim here and the antivaxer (whoever it was) who dishonestly edited snippets of her talk together to give the impression that she was antivaccine is a reprehensible piece of lying garbage, this incident is a cautionary tale that should be a lesson for vaccine advocates, particularly newbies. What do I mean? If there’s one thing I’ve learned dealing with antivaxers it’s that some of them are relentlessly dishonest to the level of spreading fake news to further their cause. This subset will not infrequently take what you say out of context to make it look as though you support their views. When going into any of these sorts of events, you have to be acutely aware of this risk and be very, very, very careful about what you say, including in small segments, to make sure that you don’t say anything that can easily be taken out of context. Now, in my case, no one—not even the most rabid antivaxer—is going to try (or be able) to convince people that I said something supporting antivaccine pseudoscience. That being said, I’m very aware that antivaxers would love to capture me saying something that paints me in a bad light, such as advocating something evil or saying something so wrong that it makes me look stupid or ignorant to have said it. Even experienced hands can be tripped up, such as when Dr. Paul Offit was unexpectedly confronted by an antivaxer in the cafeteria at NYU Langone Medical Center by an antivaxer and lost his cool.

Assuming I’m correct, Blima Marcus should be applauded for counteracting antivaccine pseudoscience in the Orthodox Jewish community. I hope that she learns from this incident. It’s a not uncommon rookie misstep. If she learns to be a bit more careful about what she says and always aware of how it can be twisted and taken out of context, then she’ll be an even more effective pro-vaccine spokesperson, and that will be good for the health of the children of New Jersey.

ADDENDUM:

Here is some original video showing two hours of Marcus’ talk in context: