Aug 20 2009

August Is Vaccine Awareness Month – Who Knew?

I applaud the recent attempts by the American Academy of Pediatrics to fight back against the anti-vaccine misinformation scare-mongering machine. As part of that goal August is Vaccine Awareness Month. However, this just brought home for me how much better the PR machine is on the anti-vax side than on the side of science. Here we are half way through August and I am just learning it is Vaccine Awareness Month. This is a topic I track quite closely, and blog about frequently. Where was the media blitz? Where was the rallying of troops?

The Good

OK – it’s not all bad. They did put out an open letter with a fair number of authoritative signature. Here is a brief excerpt:

We, the undersigned, support immunizations as the safest, most effective way to control and eradicate infectious diseases. This August, as another National Immunization Awareness Month comes to a close, we are reminded that diseases such as smallpox and polio were once commonplace in the United States. Thanks to vaccinations, we have not seen or experienced many of the infectious diseases that gripped past generations, but other countries have not been so fortunate and outbreaks continue in the United States.

There is also the Every Child by Two campaign cofounded by Rosalyn Carter and Betty Bumpers (former first lady of Arkansas) and also supported by Amanda Peet. Their website is an excellent source of information on vaccine safety, the benefits of vaccines, and the risks of losing herd immunity through the efforts of anti-vaccinationists.

There is also a significant push-back coming from the scientific arena. On my own site, Science-Based Medicine, as I blogged about yesterday, we are building a resource on many topics, but starting with Vaccines and Autism because of the urgency of this topic. More and more pediatricians and scientists are starting to be vocal in this area. Dr. Joe Albietz, a pediatrician, became involved in SBM because of this issue.

Many scientific and medical organizations have publicly supported the safety of vaccine. The CEO of the American Medical Association, Michael D. Maves, M.D., made the following statement in 2008:

“Scientific data overwhelmingly show that there is no connection between vaccines and autism…We need more research to investigate the actual causes of autism, but it would be a disservice to the health of our children if we let vaccines take the blame for this tragic and complex disease.”

The fight is also international. The Young Australian Skeptics (correction – the campaign was run by a separate group – The Australian Skeptics, but the link I give is a report on the YAS site) have had particular success against the AVN (which stands for Australian Vaccination Network but is really the Anti-Vaccination Network). Sponsored by Dick Smith, they were able to put out an ad campaign against the AVN. Their efforts inspired a formal complaint against the dangerous misinformation put out by the AVN. They had great media coverage over the tragic death of Dana McCaffery from whooping cough, which she contracted largely due to the lack of herd immunity in her area, which in turn was a direct result of the AVN’s campaign.

But also – they exposed the fact that the AVN, in addition to being dangerous anti-vax loons, are also conspiracy theorists endorsing the shadowy world government known as the illuminati.

From my perspective it seems that momentum is growing. But we have an uphill battle.

The Bad

Part of the problem is that until recently those organizations that should be promoting vaccines and fighting back against anti-vaccine propaganda have either been reluctant to do so, or half just been half-hearted or ineffective. The Centers for Disease control has famously made some wishy-washy statements that are easily twisted.

As stated above, from a PR point of view, the efforts to promote vaccines and fight against anti-vaccine propaganda have been lackluster. Vaccine Awareness Month will come and go with barely a whisper.

Part of the problem is that PR campaigns run contrary to the inclinations of scientists. Scientists tend to be guarded and conservative in their statement, they avoid skimming over uncertainty and complexity, and they generally are in the business of persuading through cold hard data. Unfortunately – as a species we are moved not by data but by emotion. It has become conventional wisdom, for example, that intellectuals do not do well in political campaigns. Long explanations don’t play well – emotional manipulation does.

This causes a serious dilemma for scientists and skeptics – how do we hold true to our dedication to good science and intellectual honesty while still being persuasive. I think it can be done, it’s just not easy. Of course, the other side can optimize their message for maximal emotional appeal, sound bites, and manipulation. They are not constrained by science or intellectual honesty – so the playing field is definitely not level.

But there is a lot that can be done without any compromise of message or integrity. We have the data on our side, after all. And the efforts of the anti-vaccine groups are misguided, based entirely on misinformation, and they are very dangerous, and have caused real harm. We have plenty of PR ammunition with the truth – we just have to use it. We need more op-eds by scientists explaining the importance and safety of vaccines. We need to respond quickly to misinformation. We need to grab media attention away from the antics of the anti-vaccinationists. And we need to hold media outlets accountable for propagating dangerous health misinformation

The Dangerous

The recent H1N1 pandemic and efforts to stem the tide of infection through vaccination is a great opportunity to teach the public about the importance and potential of vaccines. Instead I am seeing a wave of anti-vaccine misinformation. Some of it, I think (I can’t really know) is just lazy journalists who haven’t done their research. Two articles in a local online news outlet, the Hartford, seem like lazy journalism (which seems to fit the low standards of this paper, which seems to be mostly a glorified blog collective).

Ed Kellner wrote a piece: Autism worries raise concern about swine flu vaccine, in which he makes some blatantly false and reckless statements, such as the myth that mercury poisoning has been linked to autism. He then gives the standard sciencey statement from the CDC followed by a long list of false claims and misleading statements by the anti-vaccine Autism Research Institute. This wasn’t even false balance – this was grossly slanted toward the cranks. Kellner never mentions that thimerosal was removed from the vaccine schedule in the US by 2002 and yet autism rates continued their rate of increase without any change.

Jennifer Tinch then follows up with Flu Vacciantion Side Effects – Guillian Barre Syndrome. She uses anecdotal accounts to scare her readers about the risks of GBS from the flu vaccine – without ever quoting actual scientific data, such as the fact that the risk of GBS from the flu vaccine is about one in a million. I already dealt with the GBS issue here, so I won’t repeat it. I wonder if the is going to become Hartfords answer to the Huffington Post. Let’s hope not.

There is lazy journalism, and then there is giving a voice to a known anti-vax crank. The daily green published an article by Deidre Imus (wife of shock-jock Don Imus, also an anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist). She wrote an article called The 6 Do’s and Don’ts of Childhood Vaccines. This is framed as a friendly health advice column, as if Imus is distilling conventional wisdom from trusted sources. Instead, she is just repeating the talking points of the anti-vaccine movement.

She warns against thimerosal. Tells parents to as if vaccines are really necessary, suggesting that some may not be. She repeats the myth (summarized as “too many too soon”) that vaccines should be spread out more. She also plays the “toxin gambit” by pointing out there are “toxins” in vaccines, like formaldehyde. She fails to mention that we have more formaldehyde naturally in our bodies – this is a chemical that is normally byproduct of certain biochemical reactions. There is also no evidence that it is harmful in the doses present in vaccines. This is pure scare tactics.

But the PR machine of the anti-vax movement is well-funded and effective. They have slick websites, celebrity backers, and good slogans (you gotta give it to them for “green our vaccines.”) It appears they have swindled some of the liberal press into thinking that anti-vaccine propaganda is a liberal issue, while simultaneously playing to the anti-government conspiracy minded on the right (well-played).


Despite having the facts overwhelmingly on our side, we are definitely behind the PR curve and are playing catch-up. But this is an issue we can tackle, because the evidence is so clear.

Vaccines work – they are the most effective public health measure devised by humans.

Vaccines are safe – nothing is without risk, but vaccines are one of the most tried-and-true medical interventions we have. The risks are statistically tiny and overwhelmed by the benefit.

Herd immunity saves lives – getting vaccinated protects others, not just yourself or your children.

Anti-vaccine misinformation kills. Dana McCaffrey is just one example, but a tragic one. We are seeing measles and mumps outbreaks. The flu continues to kill half a million people world wide every year, and we do not yet know how serious the H1N1 pandemic will be. The Jenny McCarthy Body Count website tracks the incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases and deaths.

This is a fight we can win – this time the scientific data and emotion are on our side.

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