Saturday, January 29, 2011


WITF, a public television station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania recently hosted a lively discussion on its show, Smart Talk. The subject was the potential vaccine-autism connection, and the format essentially pitted Mark Blaxill against two representatives of the mainstream medical community. It was not a fair fight; there were only two on the other side.

There was a likely intent to stack the deck against the connection, but a couple of things stopped that from happening. First, the moderator allowed Mark to finish sentences—a mark of civility that seems to have been forgotten by the likes of Anderson Cooper. The second thing that happened was that one of the doctors, Jeanette Ramer, seems to have ignored the script. She clearly does not put any credence in the research suggesting a link (which may be due to the fact that she clearly had not actually read much—if any—of that research). And she did not have as great a grasp on the facts as she might have.

For the most part, though, Dr. Ramer made her points in a calm and rational manner, without resorting to over-the-top arguments, other than an unfortunate use of what I like to call “the O.J. argument.” You’ve heard it before; if only we didn’t have to worry about those pesky vaccine questions, we could put all our resources into hunting for the “real killers.” At least she did not try to make the absurd argument that there is no environmental factors at all, and that the rise in diagnosis is due solely to an broader diagnostic criteria and better awareness.

That was the type of argument handed to us, though, by the other doctor on the panel, Cynthia DeMuth. She was a through-and-through Offiteer. Dr. DeMuth recited the standard talking points, and even cited (I kid you not) the Danish study as proof that thimerosal didn’t play a role in the epidemic. She also talked about the convincing nature of some goofy study in which “experts” viewed birthday party videos of one-year-olds, who had not yet received the MMR, and they identified which children would later be diagnosed with ASD.

It seemed that at some point, the program became a two-person discussion between Mark and Dr. Ramer. Dr. DeMuth was out of her league, and was properly ignored.

I have no expectations that civility may spread to the ongoing debate in the media. I won’t hold my breath. But it sure was nice to see what Mark can get across when given a chance.

Watch the full episode. See more Smart Talk.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011


This month on Injecting Sense: The Radio Edition, we'll be talking with Ginger Taylor about vaccine safety, vaccine rights, the Center for Personal Rights, and the new book, Vaccine Epidemic. Join us this Friday, January 28th, at 1:00 p.m. EST, on Autism One Radio (or catch it later in the AO Radio archives).


Listen to the show here.

Sunday, January 16, 2011


In the debates about vaccine rights, just as in the parallel debates about autism, one does not need to search too far to find hypocrisy. But then hypocrisy comes easily to those who want to oversimplify the issues.

The desire to oversimplify complicated issues leads to the tagging of anyone who might question the safety of the one-size-fits-all vaccination policy as an “anti-vaxxer.” The moral myopia required to use such a misleading moniker and maintain a straight face while doing so is staggering. It is nothing short of the demonization of concerned parents, physicians and scientists who are only asking legitimate questions.

What we hear are broad moralizations about how casting doubt on the vaccination program disrupts herd immunity, leading to the rise of dreaded disease and the death of children. One must first ask if there really is a rise in diseases such as measles among the population of, for the most part, vaccinated children? I am always suspicious of any answer that comes to us courtesy of epidemiology, a peculiar science in which results are completely dependent upon the manner in which the researchers decide to classify data.

Assuming there has been a rise in certain diseases like measles, is that rise due to a relatively small population that is avoiding vaccination, or is it the development of new strains that are resistant to any immunity flowing from inoculation? (Keep in mind that the same people who make the connection between unvaccinated kids and outbreaks of measles are the same guys who always tell us that correlation does not mean causation.) A similar question must be asked about whether the newly diagnosed cases of measles are necessarily more deadly than what we saw before the development of vaccines; this is a malady that was considered a normal part of childhood when I was growing up.

Am I completely off-base here? Let’s look at outbreaks of polio that have arisen on occasion in recent years. At first, we always hear how this was caused by a breakdown in herd immunity because some children weren’t getting vaccinated. Then comes the news that the strain of polio that had been diagnosed actually originated with the vaccine itself. (See, e.g., here, here, here and here). Although the authorities all emphasize that the outbreak is primarily among the unvaccinated, the question must still be raised. Why should the eradication of a “wild” disease result in the creation of a new disease?

But let’s leave aside the question of disease outbreak. Let’s assume that having a relatively small subpopulation of children avoid particular vaccinations might result in isolated outbreaks of disease and perhaps even death. I’m not buying it, but let’s assume it for the sake of a full discussion. Why are those consequences more egregious than the consequences that sometimes flow from receiving routine vaccinations?

Why do some people feel outrage over the death or hardship to a child who contracts a “vaccine-preventable” disease, but not one tear is shed over Elias Tembenis? Elias had his life cut short by the DTaP vaccine. The Vaccine Court did not want to address whether or not his all-too-brief life was made harder by autism brought on by vaccines, but the Special Master had to concede that his epilepsy and seizures, which led to his death, were the direct result of a vaccine reaction (pdf of decision here).

The Tembenis family, who strive every day to have their lost son live through their own good works, are not alone. The Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has awarded billions for death and injury directly caused by vaccine reactions. That money, however, can never repair the damage done.

And then there’s the damage and death that won’t be acknowledged because the cost to the vaccination program would be too great. How many young girls must die because their parents thought they were protecting them from cancer by immunizing them from a STD? How many other girls who get the Gardasil vaccine will live a life filled with suffering in the name of some “greater good,” like the daughter of Amy Pingel?

Then there’s autism. Despite the best efforts of the public-health/pharmaceutical complex to declare the debate over, we still have not determined once and for all what role might have been ⎯ and might still be ⎯ played by vaccinations in the environmental triggering of the ASD epidemic. If those of us who believe that role is significant are correct, then the denialists have a lot of blood on their hands, for there have been far too many lives lost to autism.

I am not asking for anyone to change their mind if they truly believe that the costs of the vaccination program outweigh the risks. It is clear that many of those people understand that vaccines can and do cause wrong, but they think the sacrifice is worth it. I have to say, though, that they scare me more than those who are only in the argument to protect profits. The willingness to ignore the harm is no less disingenuous just because they think they’re right.

If people like that truly believe that the children whose lives have been ruined or even taken by vaccine reactions are regrettable collateral damage whose sacrifice serves the greater good, they should at least have the decency to acknowledge that sacrifice. They should be willing to stand face-to-face with Harry and Gina Tembenis, and with Amy Pingel and her daughter, and explain why they think the sacrifice served society.

And if there’s anyone out there who thinks their child was harmed because some other child didn’t get fully vaccinated, I’ll be glad to talk to them and share with them the stories of countless children who have been harmed. To be unwilling to do so would be hypocritical.

Saturday, January 08, 2011


On Wednesday, after the news outlets all broke the sensational headlines that “the” study linking vaccines to the autism epidemic had been reported to be a fraud, Mark Blaxill wrote the following:
The desperation of the medical industry to defend it profits and programs is never more on display when they launch a new attack on Andrew Wakefield. Today’s allegations are not new, they are just an attempt to capture another news cycle and ABC and CNN gladly oblige. This is a time that reminds me of Edmund Burke’s quote, “all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” I stand with Andy.
There was a time in my life when I had planned on going into journalism. As it turned out, my life’s path took me in a different direction. There have been times when I wondered if I shouldn’t have stayed in that field. After this last week, though, I’m kind of glad I’m not a journalist; I’d hate to have to explain the complete lack of moral and/or intellectual integrity that was displayed by too many in that field.

I’m really not sure what was worse. Was it Brian Deer’s cynical and dishonest persecution of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, or was it the total buy-in of people like Anderson Cooper ⎯ one of the few guys in the mainstream media I thought was worth a damn? I was certainly wrong about him.

The media fell over itself breaking the astounding news that the British Medical Journal was calling the original case series by Dr. Wakefield, et al a “fraud.” Did none of those enterprising reporters have the time and energy to look past the headline and examine the story itself? Does the work of a tabloid journalist acquire credibility simply because it’s published in a “prestigious” medical journal with ties to the pharmaceutical industry?

The mainstream press has been pounding on its theme: pity the poor, misguided parents who desperately turned to a charlatan for answers. Well, to paraphrase J.B. Handley, we don’t need your sympathy; we need the truth, with all its details and nuances.

Reporting the truth, though, requires effort. And reporting the whole truth may conflict with the business philosophy of publishers and networks ⎯ an attitude that filters down to editors and reporters: simplistic sensationalism sells!

Why risk losing your audience by presenting all of the facets of a very complex issue. It’s easier to boil down a position (especially a position attractive to the industry that spends the most advertising dollars) to the personification of a single individual. In the view of the arrogant media, the public is far more prepared to watch the downfall of a man than they are willing to think about ideas that many men and women have developed and debate.

That’s the present Brian Deer gave to the mainstream media, to the absolute satisfaction of the pharmaceutical/public-health establishment. He created a straw man to knock down and create a loud noise in its fall.

What the media fails to understand, though, is that the only similarity between that straw man and Andrew Wakefield is the name. The Andrew Wakefield created by Brian Deer is a myth. He’s fictitious. And he’s as devoid of substance and truth as is his creator.

The real Dr. Wakefield is not so easily knocked to the ground. He has proven time and again that he can stand tall against lies. He stands with us.

And I stand with Andy.