A couple of years back, Oprah Winfrey offered notorious antivaxxer Jenny McCarthy her own show on Oprah’s health network. Needless to say, a lot of people were unhappy about this, including me. Ms. McCarthy’s ideas about health and medicine are not only demonstrably wrong, they are what I consider to be a public health threat. She actively promotes people not taking medicine known to work, and to try things we know don’t work. That link above has copious examples.
So I was semi-delighted to hear that she will not be getting a show on Oprah’s network; apparently, she was unhappy with the negotiations and walked away.
Why only semi-delighted? According to that article McCarthy is being wooed by NBC, so she’ll still be able to sell her wares on TV, and she’ll still be getting the imprimatur of a network backing her. That’s too bad. Her beliefs about medicine are clearly contrary to what we know to be true scientifically, and people’s lives are actually impacted, hugely, by the kinds of misinformation that’s already far too prevalent out there.
Tip o’ the syringe to Fark
Reporting on the latest news about vaccinations is frustrating. For every step forward we take a step back.
1) First, the good: vaccination rate for measles in the UK has risen to its highest level in 13 years according to the UK Health Protection Agency. The rate — 90% among two-year-olds — is pretty good. I’ll note that this is for the first of two vaccinations needed; for the second dose the uptake is lower, 85%.
One bit of bad news about this is the reason behind the rate increase is thought to be due to a series of measles outbreaks in Europe. It’s an irony of life that vaccines are a victim of their own success: inoculations have been so successful in eliminating some diseases that people take for granted the diseases are gone. But they’re not gone, they’re waiting. When vaccination rates drop low enough, we see more measles. And pertussis. And the flu, and polio.
And when this happens, people get sick, and some die. A teenager in the UK recently died of measles. He had a compromised immune system, which means he relied on us, the rest of the population, to keep up herd immunity.
We failed him.
2) In Massachusetts, it is a requirement by law that children be vaccinated to enter public school. The only exceptions are due to health reasons (for example, an allergy to ingredients of vaccines) or for religious reasons. I disagree with religious exemptions when it comes to medicine — as I’ve said here and here and here— but the Massachusetts legislature is about to consider a bill that will make things much worse. The bill, if passed, will amend the previously existing law. In its entirety, the bill says:
Notwithstanding the provisions of this section a child shall, upon written request of a parent to the school, be admitted to school.
What this means is that if a parent has decided for whatever reason not to vaccinate their child, all they have to do is write a letter and the kid must be allowed to attend school. I expect the reasoning behind this bill is to allow parents more freedom, but what it will actually do is greatly increase the risk of other children at Massachusetts schools for contracting serious and potentially life-threatening diseases.
The sponsor, John Keenan (D-Salem), appears to be a public safety-conscious man, having sponsored many bills to increase public safety. Going over his record I find myself agreeing with many of his policies. But this one strikes me as a bad idea.
Harpocrates Speaks has much more on this. If you live in Massachusetts, I suggest you read his article and contact your local representative about this issue.
Tip o’ the syringe to J Thomas and Todd W.
A few months ago I posted about the Autism Science Foundation: an organization that funds real research into autism. We don’t know what causes autism, but ongoing research is making progress, and ASF is helping support that.
For today only, they are featured on the Philanthroper home page. Philanthroper is a group that helps raise money one dollar at a time. I like this idea. Giving a dollar isn’t all that hard for a lot of people, and the process is pretty painless: if you have a buck and a Paypal account, it takes less than a minute.
A lot of time, money, and effort is being wasted looking into a connection between vaccines and autism when we know no such connection exists. I’m glad there are groups out there trying to find the real causes, and that’s why I already donated to ASF.
Pertussis, known commonly as whooping cough, is a highly contagious disease. It’s bad for anyone to get, but in infants it can result in death.
We have a vaccine that inoculates people against the bacterium. Yet, because not enough people get this vaccine, we’re seeing pertussis (and measles) outbreaks in many, many places. And who suffers? Babies too young to be vaccinated.
I want you to watch the following video. It’s a segment on the Australian 60 Minutes program, which deals with this issue plainly and truthfully. It’s an extremely difficult video to watch, as you’ll see (I had to turn my head several times, to be honest) but it’s also extremely important that everyone sees it.
Pay close attention to antivaxxer Viera Schiebner. Watch her demeanor, her manner, her attitude. This is a leader in their movement? To say her view of medicine, of reality, is skewed is to seriously understate the case.
Barbara Holland Bronwyn Hancock, who works with Schiebner, justifies not getting vaccinated by making the outrageous statement that diseases can be beneficial.
I fail to see how exposing infants to potentially fatal infections is beneficial in any way.
Mia Freedman has written an excellent article about this. Apparently, only
11 8% of adults in South Australia, are vaccinated against pertussis [the 11% number is an average for all of Australia, my apologies for any confusion]. It’s tempting to blame the antivaxxers for this, but I wonder. I know a lot of my readers here are not antivax, but how many have had their Tdap booster?
I have. As much as I talk about this issue, I didn’t know I needed a booster shot for tetanus, diptheria, and pertussis until recently. As soon as I found out I went to my doctor and got the vaccination. Pertussis is spread by unvaccinated adults carrying the bacterium, so getting the booster shot will help lower the reservoir of hosts.
Getting the booster may not save your life, but it could very well save the life of an innocent infant too young to be otherwise protected. Go see your doctor, ask them about it, and if they recommend it, get the booster.
My thanks to Richard Saunders for the video, and to David McCaffery — who appears in the above video with his wife Toni — for the link to Ms. Freedman’s article. David’s daughter Dana would have been over two years old now if she hadn’t succumbed to pertussis at the age of just four weeks.
There’s a grand irony about skepticism and alt-med groups that I suspect most people don’t know. Skeptics are commonly seen as curmudgeonly cynics, poopooing new ideas and excluding anyone not in their club. Alt-med people are seen as warm, open, willing to try new things, and welcoming anyone to their group.
But that’s not the way it really works. In fact, skeptical groups welcome people who believe in various things we don’t (we’ve had them come to various TAMs; the effort we make in outreach could be improved, of course, but we certainly don’t turn them away — an important point, as you’ll see in a moment), and alt-med groups… well, they talk a good game, but when it comes down to a skeptic actually showing up at their meetings, their actions speak much louder than words.
But don’t take my word for it. You can read all about what happened to my pal and active supporter of real medicine Jamie Bernstein when she attended the antivax Autism One convention. She wrote up her experience in two parts: the first on Skepchick, and the second on Friendly Atheist.
The upshot? Despite behaving herself, obeying the rules, and being very polite, she was escorted out of the meeting by three security guards and four armed police officers, ejected on clearly trumped-up charges.
As Orac points out, does this sound like an open and honest movement? Or does it sound like people who are terrified of different opinions and quash dissent, even before it happens?
Our old nemesis measles is roaring back in the US, with the CDC actually issuing a warning for travelers. Americans visiting other countries are bringing the disease back with them, and places where vaccination rates are low are seeing outbreaks. We’ve had twice as many cases of measles so far in 2011 than we did all year in 2010.
As Seth Mnookin, author of The Panic Virus, points out, it’s interesting how there is a cluster of cases in Minnesota, where antivaxxer Andrew Wakefield and others have been targeting the Somali community. Seth also notes that of the cases we’re seeing here, 89% are from unvaccinated people, and fully 98% of the people hospitalized were unvaccinated. He goes on to show the real financial cost of the disease, on top of the devastating health problems it causes.
And we have some unwelcome company: In Australia, pertussis (whooping cough) is on the rise, with more than 4500 cases so far this year.
4500. Holy crap. And this horrible disease is particularly dangerous for infants, babies too young to be vaccinated. It can and does kill them. That is the plain and very, very hard truth. In the article linked above, doctors come right out and say it’s the antivaccination movement behind this; parents who do their research on the internet about vaccines instead of talking to doctors who have devoted their lives to science, medicine, and saving people. These parents, I have no doubts, want to do what’s best for their children, but by not seeking out a doctor’s advice they are putting these children — and others — at very grave risk.
It’s really very simple: vaccinations save lives. And the lives saved may be those of the most vulnerable among us. Have you had your TDAP booster? I have. If you haven’t, please please please talk to your doctor.
Tip o’ the needle to Thomas Siefert. Pertussis image from Microbiology2009.
I do so love to report these wins for reality, as rare as they are: the very vocal antivax advocate Mark Geier has had his medical license revoked in Maryland. Why?
The Maryland State Board of Physicians reviewed nine cases of autistic children seen by Geier, of which he treated seven. Of those nine, the Board found he misdiagnosed six of them. He (mis)diagnosed them with "precocious puberty", a medical condition where kids have extremely early onset of puberty. Why would he do such a thing? Well, this condition can be treated with Lupron, a drug which lowers testosterone (it’s used to chemically castrate adult men). Geier happens to think Lupron can also help autism — despite there being no evidence at all that’s the case — which makes his diagnosis very suspect. It implies strongly that he used the precocious puberty diagnosis as an excuse to prescribe the drug.
By the way, Lupron costs $5000 – $6000 a month to administer. The side effects can be severe as well, including seizures, and it’s known that autistic children are prone to seizures. That’s why the Board wrote that Geier’s treatment "exposed the children to needless risk of harm, " (pp 12 – 13). As far as his medical expertise, the Board also wrote that Geier’s "assessment and treatment of autistic children as described herein, however, far exceeds his qualifications and expertise" (p. 13). That dry assessment does nothing to convey the horror I felt reading the Board’s document, though. In several cases, he didn’t even diagnose the children in person.
The statement by the Board goes on and on, and every page paints Geier with a more and more damning brush. That’s no surprise, as Geier has long been known to play fast and loose with reality… like so many other antivaxxers.
I’m very glad to see this happen. So many alt-med promoters can at least claim caveat emptor, but when it comes to antivaxxers, the emptores are children. This puts the lives of kids directly at risk, and indirectly the lives of many, many others.
As it happens, Geier is also licensed to practice medicine in California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, New Jersey, Virginia, and Washington. At least now children in Maryland are safe from him, but there are still ten states to go… and a lot more people like Geier out there.
Tip o’ the syringe to pro-health hero Dr. Rachie.
I’ve just learned that antivax ads are now running on the Times Square Jumbotron in NYC (ironically, I was just there, right at that intersection, but I was in a cab and missed seeing the ad). These ads are sponsored by Joe Mercola and the National Vaccine Information Center.
It’s been a while since I’ve mentioned these two fonts of rabid antivaccination nonsense. Mercola is an alt-medder who claims to only want to promote "natural health", which must mean getting pertussis, polio, and measles, because he fights vaccines tooth and nail. He won’t let reality stop him, nor decorum and good taste. He’s another in a long line of alt-med bullies, hoping to shout so loudly they can drown out reality.
The NVIC is just as bad if not worse; they spread dangerous information about vaccines, then sue anyone who tries to call them on their antics.
So it’s a pretty safe bet that any ads sponsored by Mercola and the NVIC are in and of themselves a threat to national health. Matt at Skeptical Teacher has details on the ads and what can be done, while Elyse at Skepchick is spearheading a campaign to stop the ads.
This kind of thing must stop. Now. The antivaxxers are a serious health threat; vaccines save lives, and when vaccinations rates drop, people — including babies — get sick and some die. It’s just that simple.
Pertussis image from Microbiology2009.
I know I just wrote about vaccine-preventable diseases on the rise once again, but even in the past couple of days there’s more news:
1) Houston is seeing the first case of measles in six years. The victim? An 11-month-old baby. Let’s hope she has a full and swift recovery, and no one else falls ill.
2) In that post linked above I talked about a school in Virginia that had to close down due to a big pertussis outbreak. Well, in Canada, they’re telling kids who are unvaccinated they can’t come to school; at least, not until they can show their inoculations are up-to-date. I have mixed feelings about forcing kids to get vaccinated, but in the end we simply cannot have schools be breeding grounds for diseases which are trivially easy to prevent. I read about this story on Fark, and the comments there are interesting, to say the least.
3) Seth Mnookin, who wrote "The Panic Virus" an exposé of the antivax movement, has posted his thoughts on these recent news stories. As usual, I find his comments to be well-reasoned and thoughtful.
Why is it that when…
a) 30 people in Virginia have been diagnosed with pertussis (whooping cough) — enough to cause classes to be canceled at a local school — and
b) 14 cases have popped up in Minnesota — cases which can apparently be traced almost directly to the dangerous antivax movement —
… does CBS allow a ridiculous antivax screed by reporter Sharyl Attkisson ever to see the light of day?
Get vaccination FACTS at Immunize for Good.