Unlike most people, I’ve been following the activities and rhetoric of the antivaccine movement for nearly two decades. In that time, I’ve learned that there really isn’t anything new under the antivaccine sun, so to speak. The fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) that antivaxers spread about vaccines includes the same basic claims made without evidence of alleged harm caused by vaccinations that show up with different variations such that refuting them is like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole in which the moles are ever mutating into ever more ridiculous and terrifying forms. Over the last few years, particularly since the Disneyland measles outbreak four years ago, the media have been paying more attention to the antivaccine movement. It also appears to me that the media have also been less prone to one of the things that used to drive me crazy when I first started blogging about antivaxers, namely indulging in false balance by including an antivaxer for “balance” in every story about autism or vaccines. This has occurred even as antivaccine groups have become more politically powerful, aligning themselves with conservative, anti-government, anti-regulation political groups under the guise of “freedom,” “choice, and “parental rights,” to the point where Republican politicians feel obligated to pander to antivaxers and the Republican Party has arguably become he political home for antivaxers. Unfortunately, as a result antivaxers have become more visible doing what they’ve always done, harassing vaccine policymakers, particularly at the CDC. This harassment was on full view this week at the meeting of the CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) yesterday.
I’ve mentioned the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices before, as it’s the CDC committee tasked with making and updating the CDC’s recommended vaccination schedule for children and adults. Basically, antivaxers have shown up at every Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices meeting I can remember since I first learned what ACIP is and what it does. However, people whom I know have become increasingly concerned about the behavior of antivaxers at these meetings. Indeed, there is now a Facebook group called Inundate the CDC ACIP Meetings:
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.
Meanwhile, antivaccine blogs like Age of Autism routinely encourage their readership and followers to submit written comments and try to make oral comments. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, like many government advisory bodies, allows public comment, and antivaxers take full advantage of that. That’s how we end up with spectacles like Del Bigtree giving oral commentary:
Del Bigtree, as you remember, is the producer of VAXXED, the antivaccine propaganda film disguised as a documentary directed by Andrew Wakefield, the man who, arguably more than anyone else currently alive, is most responsible for the massive resurgence of measles that is ongoing in Europe and the smaller outbreaks we’re suffering in the US as we fear that we could be going the way of Europe, our current outbreaks of tens or hundreds exploding to outbreaks of thousands.
Public commenters are allowed only a very brief period of time; so it’s interesting to see how Bigtree packed in so much pseudoscience in a mere three minutes. He starts out by identifying himself as the founder of the Informed Consent Action Network. This leads me to a rule of thumb that I recently posted on Twitter that pissed off a fair number of people. If a group related to vaccines has the term “informed consent” or “vaccine choice” in its name, it is antivaccine. I admit that there could be an exception to this rule of thumb, but I’ll respond by saying one thing. I’ve been refuting antivaccine pseudoscience for close to two decades now. I’ve seen more antivaccine groups than I can recall. If there is an exception to this rule, I have yet to find it despite having been paying close attention to vaccine-related issues for a very long time.
Basically, to antivaxers, “choice” is code for antivaccine. So is “informed consent,” is in reality what I like to refer to as misinformed consent. Basically, the idea when antivaxers invoke “informed consent,” their version is a distorted image of informed consent that’s a warped reflection from a funhouse mirror. What antivaxers portray as informed consent involves telling parents nonexistent risks from vaccines (e.g., autism, diabetes, asthma, autoimmune disease, sudden infant death syndrome) and exaggerating massively the tiny actual risks from vaccines while denying or downplaying the benefits of vaccines. Basically, what antivaxers consider “informed consent” involves telling parents that vaccines don’t work very well and cause all sorts of horrible complications, hence my referring to it as “misinformed consent.”
Bigtree starts right out claiming that discussing “actual vaccine safety” is something that the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices rarely does, which is utterly ridiculous. Of course, antivaxers routinely misrepresent themselves, either through self-delusion or strategic lying, that they are “not antivaccine” but rather “vaccine safety advocates.” Again, like the case for informed consent, when an antivaxer invokes “vaccine safety,” he will demand impossible standards, in essence no adverse reactions at all ever.
In any event, Bigtree launches into a litany of antivax tropes, such as the “no true placebos” trope. I’ve discussed this before, as it’s a trope that even someone like Peter Gøtzsche, who is not an antivaxer, can fall prey to, and it’s most frequently used to attack Gardasil. The argument goes that it is an inappropriate control to compare an aluminum-containing vaccine like Gardasil to an aluminum adjuvant without the actual antigens from the vaccine. The argument is that the best control should have been normal saline; i.e., an inert control. This is a profoundly ignorant argument when you have an intervention known to be safe based on many studies in many vaccines over the years (like aluminum adjuvants). When you have such an ingredient, then if you want to determine whether or not a vaccine containing that ingredient works and is safe, an excellent way to do it is to compare it to a control containing everything in the vaccine except the antigens that produce the immune response. In other words, the adjuvant-only control is a very good control. Antivaxers often claim that the real reason this control was chosen in so many studies of Gardasil and Cervarix was to hide adverse events due to these vaccines.
Bigtree, like many antivaxers, also misunderstands medical ethics. Vaccines against diseases not previously covered by vaccines are always tested against placebo control. It is new versions of vaccines against diseases for which a vaccine exists that are not, and the reason is a very simple reason of medical ethics. It is unethical to leave a control group unprotected against a vaccine-preventable disease when an existing vaccine against that disease exists and is standard-of-care. So new vaccines are tested against existing vaccines to show that they are either superior or, at the very least, not inferior (a non-inferiority trial).
For some reason, Bigtree wastes precious seconds of his time ranting against the vaccine against Japanese encephalitis. It’s a vaccine recommended for travelers to Asia, particularly southeast Asia. Bigtree claims without evidence that six times more Americans have been injured by the vaccine than have had Japanese encephalitis, a claim that basically demands a citation. He then rants about influenza vaccination and Tdap during pregnancy, claiming again that they cause miscarriages. They don’t. Nor does maternal Tdap cause autism in the child.
Not surprisingly, Bigtree finishes by claiming that vaccines are a medical experiment and that it is a direct violation of the Nuremberg code. Let’s just say that this is one of the more historically and scientifically ignorant claims of antivaxers, and that’s saying a lot.
No, actually, that’s not the dumbest thing he said. He claimed that Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is the only scientific body in the world that says something is settled science. First, it’s not. Second, it is pretty much settled science that vaccines don’t cause autism, despite what Bigtree claims. There have been numerous studies involving huge numbers of subjects that have failed to find a hint of a whiff of a correlation between vaccines and autism. At some point, scientists have to decided that a question has been answered and that it doesn’t make sense to keep doing the same study over and over again because a fringe group doesn’t accept the results of all the other studies. Finally, he calls for a study of vaccinated versus unvaccinated children. Apparently, he doesn’t know that such studies exist, and they don’t show what he thinks they show. Basically, vaccinated children are at least as healthy as unvaccinated children, probably even healthier—and they don’t suffer from the infectious diseases vaccinated against at nearly the same rate as unvaccinated. Basically, it’s an antivaccine myth that there are no “vaxed/unvaxed” studies.
Where denying science doesn’t work, at least one commenter went full religious:
I couldn’t quite make out her name due to the rather crappy audio on this video, but thankfully, I was ultimately able to figure out who it was from another source. In any event, basically Sandra Spaetti’s argument is full on “parental rights,” in which she goes on and on about how God has given parents the absolute right to decide what is right for their children, not the government. It is, of course, an appealing argument to the religious and to conservatives, but it’s also an argument that completely ignores one person: The child. It’s an argument that doesn’t treat the child as an autonomous being with rights of his or her own. Rather, it treats the child as, in essence, the parents’ property, giving the parents an absolute right to medically neglect the child by not vaccinating. Hilariously, Spaetti goes on and on about how she’s “researched vaccines,” including ingredients, etc., and then says that she “rejects your belief that vaccines bring about improved health” and “your belief that herd immunity can be achieved through vaccinations.” Well, isn’t that special? Am I supposed to be impressed that some non-scientist went to Google University and now thinks she knows more than scientists about vaccines? The arrogance of ignorance is strong in this one, as is the Dunning-Kruger effect. Basically, Spaetti is as annoying as Bigtree (just in a different way), particularly as she declared that “God is on my side” and “I do not consent.” She also projected a lot, claiming that the the Constitution does not allow the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices’s “religious beliefs to trample mine.” Yes, she pulled the idiotic “science is a religion trope.”
If you want to see the whole thing, We Are Vaxxed posted this video:
I must admit that I didn’t watch the whole thing, because it was quite the shitshow. For example, right after Del Bigtree was Dr. Alvin Moss, an antivaccine nephrologist. For a nephrologist, he’s pretty ignorant, because he opens by saying that nephrologists noticed dialysis-associated encephalopathy and ultimately found it to be due to too much aluminum during dialysis. He also cites how aluminum in used for total parenteral nutrition in preterm infants can cause neurologic injury. Seriously? Dr. Moss doesn’t see the massive difference between large amounts of aluminum in dialysis solution or an intravenous infusion and the tiny amount of aluminum in vaccines? The stupid, it burns.
It wasn’t all bad. Two commenters were pro-science and therefore pro-vaccine. First was Alison Singer of the Autism Science Foundation, a woman who did a very difficult thing and renounced her antivax employer. Ten years ago, she resigned as executive vice president of communications and awareness for Autism Speaks, a group that was undeniably at the time very much all-in with the conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism and actively promoted antivaccine pseudoscience. In 2006, she received heavy (and, in my opinion, deserved) criticism for her appearance in an Autism Speaks-sponsored film, Autism Every Day, during which she was interviewed and said that she had contemplated driving off a bridge in a car with her autistic daughter Jodie with Jodie sitting by her, going on to say that the only reason she didn’t was because she had a neurotypical daughter at home. It was a film admittedly staged by the filmmaker to make autism look as horrible as possible. Fortunately, in 2009 Singer started to redeem herself by resigning from Autism Speaks and founding the Autism Science Foundation. She went from working for an antivax organization to staunchly standing up for the science that shows that vaccines don’t cause autism. Not surprisingly, since then antivaxers have viewed her as a traitor and have attacked her viciously. One, Levi Quackenboss, described her thusly after she appeared on John Oliver’s show in a segment deconstructing the antivaccine movement:
And as for Alison Singer, who appears toward the end of your clip, you do know that she was staunchly vaccines-cause-autism until she was blinded by the cash offered her to publicly switch sides, right?
Because anyone who finally comes to the realization that vaccines don’t cause autism must have come to that realization because she was paid off, amirite? After all, the pharma shill gambit is the favorite antivaccine gambit to use against pro-science advocates. In any case, it took guts to leave an antivaccine organization so publicly, and for that I salute her. I also salute her for having gone into the lions’ den yesterday.
There was also Lori Boyle, a representative of Nurses Who Vaccinate, who was excellent. Unfortunately, they were sandwiched between antivaxers, one of whom presented herself as a “concerned citizen” who wanted to “talk about the science.” She then went on to claim that the individual components of vaccines have never been deemed safe and invoke the same brain dead “no placebo” gambit that Del Bigtree did. Truly, understanding what does and doesn’t constitute a valid placebo and the ethics of clinical trials is not a strong suit among antivaxers. Hilariously, she says that using an aluminum-containing placebo is unethical. It is not. Really, it isn’t. She has no idea what she’s talking about. There was a mother of an immunocompromised child who spouted the “shedding” trope. There was a pediatric nurse practitioner who claimed that she was having a hard time recommending a product (vaccines) that haven’t been adequately tested. In fact, it was very depressing to me an antivaccine nurse practitioner and other antivaccine nurses testifying. One of them was particularly idiotic, ranting about toxins in vaccines.
In addition, others accused vaccine scientists of fraud. One even invoked an oldie but stupid conspiracy theory by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. about the Simpsonwood meeting. I was having acid flashbacks as she partied like it was 2005; that is, before I laughed out loud that anyone would still be parroting the Simpsonwood conspiracy theory in 2019. I mean, come on! There have been so many conspiracy theories since then! Pick a more recent one instead, like the CDC whistleblower or the Andrew Zimmerman “confession” being flogged by antivaccine “journalist” Sharyl Attkisson. It’s not a good sign when I’m more up on the latest antivax conspiracy theories than antivaxers are. Yes, I know the CDC whistleblower was mentioned, too, but it just amused the heck out of me to see Simpsonwood, given that that was one of the first antivaccine conspiracy theories I ever encountered.
So what this ACIP meeting public testimony consisted of was antivaccine nonsense, barely countered. There were basically two pro-science advocates against antivaxer after antivaxer after antivaxer ranting about vaccines, laying down every antivaccine trope in the book, calling science a religion, denying that herd immunity exists, and just generally laying down black hole density antivaccine pseudoscience, bad science, appeals to “freedom,” and arrogance of ignorance.
Meanwhile, Del Bigtree thinks that because there’s so much media attention directed at antivaxers right now, thanks to the outbreaks caused, in whole or in part, by vaccine averse frightened into not vaccinating by antivaxers like Del Bigtree, that they are “winning.” He brags that antivaxers are the only ones who can seem to “break through” and make compete with Donald Trump for generating news. In actuality, that’s a massive exaggeration, testament to the massiveness of Del Bigtree’s ego, but he’s not entirely wrong either. On the other hand, it’s not as though the antivaccine message is getting out the way it was before, as the media have basically radically decreased the amount of false balance granted antivaccine views and appropriately present the science without feeling obligated to present the “other side” as though there were a real scientific controversy. There’s not.
Even so, Del Bigtree and antivaxers are ebullient:
Bigtree goes on and on about how all the antivaxers at the ACIP meeting yesterday “made history.” Somehow, I doubt that. I don’t doubt, however, that they think they did. Fortunately, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices is a science-based committee. It’s obligated to allow public comment, and, like many crank groups, antivaxers were really good at mobilizing their cranks. The result was that, other than the two lone voices of sanity whose fortitude and willingness to stand among so many enemies and defend science, the ACIP public comment session resembled, more than anything else, YouTube comments or a particularly dumb Reddit thread. Sadly, this is not the first time they’ve done this; they’ve even harassed ACIP members. Indeed, I fear this is the new normal.