I’m not sure I want to feel sorry for Andrew Wakefield — a nudnik, possibly even a charlatan. And although I worry that MMR vaccine, especially as part of the intense dosing schedule for childhood vaccination overall, might have bad effects on some kids’ immune systems, I’m not categorically opposed to immunization.
Still, it’s hard to avoid wondering: is Wakefield right when he alleges that he’s being persecuted by the vaccine industry?
Last week, I discussed the BMJ article by Brian Deer asserting that Wakefield’s research was fraudulent, and the accompanying editorial supporting immunization. At that point, I thought that the BMJ pieces were, together, a one-off.
I was wrong. In fact, it looks this week like the vaccine industry has armed some of its main warriors and sent them out to do battle.
The Battle Against Anti-Vaccinationism
In the Jan. 13th issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, two powerful chiefs, Gregory Poland and Robert M. Jacobson, claim that there’s an “age-old struggle” to make vaccines available. Their aim is to vilify the “antivaccinationists” who “have done significant harm to the public health.” [Note the use of the holy article in this phrase, to signal just how sacred these warrior-priests hold “the” public health to be.]
The Poland-Jacobson piece is pure propaganda. Theirs is a tale of heroic struggle on the part of ever-embattled Believers against the satanic forces of Antivaccationism — who have been trying “since the 18th century” to shake people’s faith in the vaccine gospel. And nowadays the nasty antivaccinationists are using scarily modern forms of communications, such as TV and the Internet, in order “to sway public opinion and distract attention from scientific evidence.”
Wow: TV and the web. Sounds satanic alright.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a couple of crusaders make their own work sound salvationist. What troubles me is that they make it sound like they’re disinterested do-good-ers.
In fact, Poland and Jacobson are in bed with Big Pharma. Poland runs the Mayo Clinic’s Vaccine Research Group. Although as far as I can tell, Poland and Jacobson are not currently in the direct pay of the vaccine manufacturers, they and the VRG have benefited handsomely from vaccine makers’ largesse.
For instance, Poland’s and Jacobson’s work on human papillomavirus vaccine, as they acknowledge in a 2005 Mayo Clinic Proceedings paper, was funded by Merck, and their co-workers were Merck employees. Later, in conjunction with a continuing medical education module on meningococcal vaccine in 2009, Poland disclosed the following ties:
Sources of Funding for Research: Merck & Co, Inc, Novavax, Inc, Protein Sciences Corp; Consulting Agreements: Avianax, LLC, CSL Biotherapies, CSL Limited, Emergent Biosolutions Inc, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co, Inc, Novartis Vaccines, Novavax, Inc, PowderMed Ltd
And on his disclosure form for this week’s NEJM article Poland acknowledges funding from Pfizer and Novartis for vaccine studies.
So when Poland and Jacobson write that our society “must continue to fund and publish high-quality studies to investigate concerns about vaccine safety,” they’re really talking about preserving their livelihood. It’s very much in their interest to ensure a steady flow of such funding.
And when they say that “society must recognize that science is not a democracy in which the side with the most votes or the loudest voices gets to decide what is right,” they’re being completely disingenuous. Because Poland and Jacobson know quite well why science is not a democracy: in the type of research they do, it’s the big money that decides what is right.
A High Priest of Vaccine “Science”
Then there’s Paul Offit making the rounds. Offit has been the subject of lots of attention by Age of Autism, most recently as a “denialist.” Offit probably profited somewhat from the licensing of Rota Teq vaccine, which he helped invent — although AofA’s allegation that he is therefore beholden to Merck seems unsubstantiated.
What’s obvious about Offit is that he is contemptuous of people who don’t agree with his version of truth.
Offit appeared on Lenny Lopate’s radio show in New York yesterday, and presumably will be appearing elsewhere. His aim is to explain the “grave public health problem of vaccine avoidance.” The “anti-vaccine movement threatens us all,” he says. In fact, that’s the subtitle of his new book, Deadly Choices.
Where Poland and Jacobson are militant and sanctimonious, Offit sounds a note at once sentimental and officious. It’s “tragic” that there have been measles outbreaks because of parents refusing to have their kids vaccinated, he says. And the problem is that people just don’t understand science. In fact, Dan Olmsted at AofA gets it quite right when he critique’s Offit’s blinkered version of science:
Anyone concerned about [possible harms of vaccination] fits Offit’s definition of anti-vaccine, because vaccines don’t cause any of them, because Paul Offit says so, a solipsism that is really quite breathtaking: “[B]ecause anti-vaccine activists today define safe as free from side effects such as autism, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, multiple sclerosis, diabetes, strokes, heart attacks, and blood clots — conditions that aren’t caused by vaccines — safer vaccines, using their definition, can never be made.”
I had the same reaction to Offit’s self-important — and, to my mind, unscientific — claims. Offit shows no interest in the open inquiry that marks science. People who don’t agree with him are uneducated, poorly informed, maybe just stupid. And, of course, dangerous.
“Tragic” Consequences of Unbelief
On the Lopate show, Offit resorted to the now-common formula of the “tragic” consequences of parents’ belief in Andrew Wakefield.
What’s the tragedy, exactly? It’s true that there have been outbreaks of measles in the British Isles that have been traced to parents’ refusal to have their children immunized. An excellent review in BMJ in 2006 provided some of the data for the U.K. — including that one child died in a 2006 measles outbreak that was related to poor immunization coverage. A few children died in Ireland in 2000. A CDC account of a measles outbreak in California in 2008 reports that it hospitalized a few children, although none died.
It would be great if nobody ever died from an infection that could be prevented in any way. It’s surely tragic to the parents of a child who dies from a preventable infection. The sympathies of each of us should go out to such parents, as to those whose kids are killed by bad drivers, sports injuries, or infections for which there’s no vaccine.
But in what sense is one child’s death more of a collective “tragedy” for all of us than the other deaths that go unremarked every day? Why is it tragic when one child dies of a vaccine-preventable infection and not when a lot of them die of poorly regulated handguns or as troops fighting wars that never endanger our leaders, only our young?
The Ramp-up of Aggression by the Vaccine Crusaders
Why are the vaccine warriors rampant now? Perhaps the vaccine makers are terrified that the low uptake of H1N1 flu vaccine despite all the hype in 2009, along with low MMR compliance in some places (the U.K. especially), means that their profits are going to slide. Maybe their friends, like Offit and Poland, are worried that reduced uptake of vaccines will translate into diminished research funding or fewer conferences in delicious places.
Or maybe the vaccine industry finds Wakefield so obstreperous that they can’t rest until he is destroyed. Wakefield’s no choir boy, but he might not have realized just how much control the pharmaceutical industry can exert in the U.K.
In a review essay in last week’s New York Review of Books, Simon Head points out that Big Pharma is “the only major segment of the British economy that is both world-class and an intensive user of university research,” and implies that it exerts control over both the substance and volume of U.K. research productivity, especially in medicine. Head sees reason to believe that Pharma will “tighten its hold over scientific research in the UK” in the future.
It’s Not a War
There need be no either-or about vaccines. If our society can live with guns and automobiles (together accounting for roughly 50,000 American deaths a year), if we tolerate alcohol, processed foods, acetaminophen, high-rise construction, and all the other things that occasionally cause harm but mostly contribute to the way of life we prefer — then we can stop calling it “tragic” when a few parents don’t have their kids immunized.
Because to call one measles death “tragic” is to further the vaccine warriors’ campaign — the campaign that pretends to be on behalf of science or healthy kids, but is really fought to protect the fortunes of vaccine makers.
The campaign protects the power of shiftless public officials who claim to be protecting the public from harm when they serve up millions of taxpayer dollars to vaccine manufacturers for barely useful vaccines (H1N1 2009), or for vaccines that are undoubtedly helpful but might be harmful in some cases and haven’t been thoroughly examined (HPV vaccine). And who, to this day, won’t even consider the very good question that Andrew Wakefield posed in the 1990s: is it a good idea to give kids three immunizations in a single preparation?
I had my child immunized when she was the right age for that. But I’m not certain that absolutely everyone has to do the same. Neither are the courts, which is why they allow exemptions from immunization for personal belief.
I don’t think measles is a menace to civilization. I know that only a very tiny percentage of children who contract measles get dangerously sick from it, that flu vaccine doesn’t work for everyone (and isn’t an effective public health measure to stop flu outbreaks even though it can protect individuals from illness), and that varicella vaccine can make the problem of shingles worse even though it reduces the problem of chicken pox. And so forth.
I mean that immunization is complex and fraught. Not everyone can be expected to agree with every vaccine recommendation. Even while some people are opposed to vaccination and refuse to immunize their kids, life will go on, and society will continue to thrive, and Paul Offit can continue to say arrogant things about “science.”
So, could someone please call off the crusade?