Dr. David Brownstein versus the New York Times on vaccines

It’s been a bit of a bad week for antivaccinationists, and, if there’s anything I like to sit back and watch, it’s their reactions to bad news. Indeed, I was rather disappointed that I haven’t seen any anti-Semitic conspiracy theories coming from the usual sources after the Israel Ministry of Health announced a crackdown on antivaccine doctors. I’m sure they’re coming, though. Sooner or later, they’ll come. Then there were two other announcements. First, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced its top ten health threats in the world for 2019. Guess what was on the list? Sure, there was the global influenza pandemic, but there was also vaccine hesitancy:

Vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases. Vaccination is one of the most cost-effective ways of avoiding disease – it currently prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if global coverage of vaccinations improved.

Measles, for example, has seen a 30% increase in cases globally. The reasons for this rise are complex, and not all of these cases are due to vaccine hesitancy. However, some countries that were close to eliminating the disease have seen a resurgence.

The reasons why people choose not to vaccinate are complex; a vaccines advisory group to WHO identified complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines, and lack of confidence are key reasons underlying hesitancy.

While it’s true that issues with vaccine uptake involve more than just the antivaccine movement, the antivaccine movement undoubtedly is a major force contributing the the lack of confidence, and that’s what’s so frustrating about the WHO report (besides its lateness—maybe the WHO should spend less time trying to add traditional Chinese medicine quackery into the system by which diseases are classified and more time paying attention to antivaxers) is its reluctance to tell it like it is and say why so many parents have lost confidence in vaccines. While it’s not just the antivaccine movement, the antivaccine movement is a major contributor, with its use of social media to amplify antivaccine messages and word-of-mouth to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about vaccines.

On Sunday, there was an editorial in the New York Times, How to Inoculate Against Anti-Vaxxers: The no-vaccine crowd has persuaded a lot of people. But public health can prevail. Overall, it was a very sensible editorial listing the problem and potential strategies to address the problem. For instance:

It’s no mystery how we got here. On the internet, anti-vaccine propaganda has outpaced pro-vaccine public health information. The anti-vaxxers, as they are colloquially known, have hundreds of websites promoting their message, a roster of tech- and media-savvy influencers and an aggressive political arm that includes at least a dozen political action committees. Defense against this onslaught has been meager. The C.D.C., the nation’s leading public health agency, has a website with accurate information, but no loud public voice. The United States Surgeon General’s office has been mum. So has the White House — and not just under the current administration. That leaves just a handful of academics who get bombarded with vitriol, including outright threats, every time they try to counter pseudoscience with fact.

Speaking as one of those academics who regularly get bombarded with vitriol (although nowhere near as bad as what’s aimed at Paul Offit, who as the co-inventor of a rotavirus vaccine is a target of particular opprobrium, and women who speak out for vaccines who, like women everywhere on social media, are prone to misogynistic attacks), I can attest that this is true. Government does very little to combat antivaccine misinformation, not even the Surgeon General, who would be the most appropriate public face of pro-science and pro-vaccine messages. There are also some good suggestions, such as:

  • Get tough
  • Be savvy.
  • Be clear.
  • Know the enemy.
  • Know the audience.
  • Enlist the right support.

I must admit that I hadn’t heard of the Vaccine Confidence Project before. It’s described as a “a London-based academic endeavor that monitors anti-vaccine websites for rumors and conspiracies and addresses them before the messages go viral.” It sounds like what I’ve been doing for 14 years, only organized and academic, rather than a hobby like mine. That’s a good thing.

In any event, antivaxers didn’t like this editorial at all. At all. Hilariously, one of the main responses I saw came from a local antivaccine quack from the northern suburbs of Detroit named Dr. David Brownstein. He is, in my not-so-humble opinion, exactly the sort of antivaccine doctor that Israel is cracking down on, but unfortunately there doesn’t appear to be a mechanism to get the medical board here in Michigan to do anything about him. We’ve met Dr. Brownstein before a couple of times, first when he woefully lamented the requirement of a Jewish summer camp in Michigan that its campers be fully vaccinated before they can attend, after which he was schooled by both fellow Detroiter Dr. Peter Lipson and yours truly. The second example was a pseudoscience-filled rant against the Shingrix vaccine. The third time was when David Brownstein complained that his family practice board recertification expected him to know a lot about common drugs used by, you know, family practice doctors to treat commonly encountered medical conditions. Finally, he spoke at a conference called the Vaccine Choice Empowerment Symposium.

You can tell from Dr. Brownstein’s history and activities that his little “retort” to the NYT will be epically stupid, and Dr. Brownstein doesn’t disappoint, starting with the title New York Times Editorial On Vaccines: A Pseudoscience Mess! Particularly amusing is his oh-so-wounded outrage at being considered the “enemy”:

The lead New York Times (NYT) editorial today is titled, “Know The Enemy.” According to the NYT, the “enemy” is anyone who questions the safety and efficacy of any vaccine.

I guess that makes me the enemy. I thought I was a board-certified physician trying to read and decipher the research on vaccines to help guide my patients on how to make their best health care decisions.

Oh, so that‘s what David Brownstein’s been doing all these years! He could have fooled me. I thought he was spewing antivaccine misinformation and fear mongering and using his status as a physician to sound more authoritative doing it, because, well, that’s exactly what he’s been doing. He’s not even that bright about it. For instance, his opening gambit is to use one of the dumbest, most easily refuted antivaccine tropes out there, a trope I like to call “vaccines didn’t save us”:

In the early 20th Century, infection was the number one killer of Americans and it killed a high percentage of our youth. However, by the 1950’s infection rates for nearly every childhood vaccine- preventable illness (as well as other infectious illnesses like scarlet fever) had drastically declined—BEFORE vaccines were developed and mandated. In fact, for the major vaccine-preventable illnesses such as measles, mumps, diphtheria, and pertussis, the death rate declined well over 90% BEFORE vaccines were mandated. How did that occur? The death rate from infectious diseases declined not by vaccination, but by public health measures. This includes providing clean water to our houses and safely removing waste products.

Did vaccines lower the death rate for their respective illnesses? We don’t know since the rates were already declining dramatically before the mass vaccination program began. To imply that vaccines were responsible for this dramatic decline in pediatric infectious deaths in the 20th Century is nothing more than FAKE NEWS!

I’ve refuted this one before multiple times. It’s an intellectually dishonest antivaccine trope so hoary that an old fart like Dr. Julian Whitaker tried to pull it on Dr. Steve Novella and got his posterior handed to him. And rightly so. Basically, this intellectually dishonest—downright deceptive, actually—tactic involves pointing out that mortality was falling from a given infectious disease before a vaccine for it was introduced. The implication that antivaccinationists want people to draw is that hygiene, sanitation, and the like were the “real” causes of the decrease. The long version of the rebuttal this gambit is here. The short version is that disease incidence does not equal mortality and that measles incidence plummeted after the introduction of the vaccine. The reason mortality was falling before the vaccine was for other reasons. Medical care was getting better, and a smaller percentage of people who got the disease died from it.

Again, it’s a dumb argument. I will give Dr. Brownstein credit for one thing. He added the “fear, uncertainty, and doubt aspect” by trying to say imply that we “just don’t know” if vaccines decreased mortality when we do. More importantly, like many antivaxers, he seems to think that morbidity is meaningless. Who cares if half a million children suffer from measles every year, one in a thousand suffering serious complications? If those evil vaccines can’t prevent everythting, they’re worthless.

Next up from Dr. Brownstein:

One of the best indicators of the health of a country is the infant mortality rate. Researchers correlated the number of vaccines given to infants and the mortality rate for ages five and under. Guess who gave the most vaccines and guess who had the highest infant mortality rate? If you guessed the US, you win.

I laughed. This is an even dumber antivaccine trope. The claim that nations with higher numbers of vaccine on their vaccination schedules have higher infant mortality rates is based on a 2011 study so risibly awful that even I was hard-pressed to deliver to it a quantity of Insolence appropriate for its awfulness.

Next up:

The NYT states, “On the internet, anti-vaccine propaganda has outpaced pro-vaccine public health information. The anti-vaxxers, as they are colloquially known, have hundreds of websites promoting their message, a roster of tech- and media-savvy influencers and an aggressive political arm that includes at least a dozen political action committees.”

Well, in this case there is just me. And, I am not that tech-savvy.

I don’t write anti-vaccine propaganda. I write about the science behind vaccines. And, if you study the science behind vaccines, it is hard not to question the wisdom of injecting our young with too many toxic-laden vaccines.

Ha. Haha. Hahaha. Hahahaha. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

Dammit, Dr. Brownstein, I laughed so hard at that that I started coughing. Hard. (I not infrequently get a mild form of bronchitis in the winter, and things like this can bring on a coughing jag.) Sorry, Dr. Brownstein. You cited the “vaccines didn’t save us” gambit. You cited a crappy study by Neil Z. Miller and Gary S. Goldman. Let’s just put it this way. If you want to be taken seriously, you don’t quote anything by this not-so-dynamic duo. Ever. Also, if you cite the “vaccines didn’t save us gambit” uncritically to argue for the dangers of vaccines, you can never be accused of “writing about vaccine science.” You’re writing about vaccine pseudoscience.

The hits just keep on coming:

…The CDC is a cesspool of corruption, according to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. In fact, the CDC has a senior scientist who has assumed whistle-blower status claiming that published studies (by the CDC) looking at whether the MMR vaccine causes autism were fraudulent. The whistle-blower has stated, under oath, that senior CDC managers directed the whistle-blower and others to destroy and alter the data in order to hide the truth. The data, released by the whistle-blower, did show a strong correlation with the MMR vaccine and autism.

Why doesn’t the NYT write a lead op-ed demanding that the CDC whistle-blower testify in front of Congress about his allegations? To date, it has been over four years since the whistle-blower came forward. To date, he has not testified in front of Congress and the CDC has blocked his testimony in other settings. To date, the NYT has failed to write ONE article about this situation. Perhaps the CDC has no loud voice because it is too busy covering up the truth about vaccines. If there is nothing to hide, then why doesn’t the whistle-blower testify? Why has the CDC gagged him from speaking?

Yes, Dr. Brownstein invoked the favorite recent conspiracy theory among antivaxers, the “CDC whistleblower” conspiracy theory, which I’ve dealt with more times than I can remember. The granddaddy of the modern antivaccine movement, scientific fraud Andrew Wakefield, even made an antivaccine propaganda movie disguised as a documentary about it, VAXXED. Let’s just say that there’s no “there” there.

The rest of the post is a greatest hits of antivaccine tropes. For example, measles and chickenpox are harmless diseases? Check:

Would declining vaccine rates increase the susceptibility for some of the vaccinated illnesses? Yes. For example, measles and chickenpox illnesses will increase if we stop vaccinating for these illnesses. But, children rarely die from measles and chickenpox in modern countries. These illnesses are often treated with supportive care and for the vast majority recovery from the illness is uneventful.

Of course, it is not true that measles is so benign. Ditto chickenpox, which can even cause stroke.

I was getting tired at this point; so I’ll simply mention the additional tropes that Dr. Brownstein marshals in favor of his argument:

So. Much. Pseudoscience. Dr. Brownstein is the sort of doctor that makes me want to put a bag over my head in shame over his idiocy as an embarrassment to my profession.

It gets worse, though:

Folks! For those of you who know me well, I have A LOT to say about vaccines! If you want to learn more about the vaccine issues, join me for my annual lecture, ‘Holistic Medicine For The 21st Century’ on Saturday, February 2nd, 2019 at the VisTaTech Center, Schoolcraft College in Livonia, MI. I will discuss other important health topics to include:

Ozone: The Miracle Therapy
Iodine: The Most Important Nutrient
Hormone Balancing: Needed More Than Ever
Stem Cell Therapy
Do We Need More Vaccines?
& Much More!

Date: Saturday, February 2nd 2019

Time: Doors open at 8:30am. Lecture is from 9:00am-11:30am

Location: VisTaTech Center Schoolcraft College in Livonia, MI

Price: $25.00 pre-order or $35.00 at the door. Space is limited. You must be registered in order to attend. Proceeds will be donated to local charities.

Yes, in a week and a half, Dr. Brownstein is doing a seminar to promote his favorite quackery and antivaccine misinformation. (Ozone? A “miracle therapy”? There is no facepalm epic enough for this!) I wonder if I should go, as this is going to be within a reasonable drive from where I live. Of course, I’d be loathe to spend $25. After all, who knows which local charities Dr. Brownstein is sending the proceeds to? Then there’s the issue of whether I want to drive out on what’s likely to be a very cold winter morning on a Saturday in February to subject myself to Dr. Brownstein’s promotion of pseudoscience and quackery. On the other hand, it could result in a blog post on par with the one I did about my attendance at a Republican candidate’s antivaccine crankfest six months ago, right before the Michigan primary elections.

Let’s just say that I’m thinking about it. The grant I’m working on should be in the can by then…