Antivaccine nonsense Autism Bioethics Medicine Politics Popular culture Quackery Skepticism/critical thinking

The American Academy of Pediatrics versus antivaccinationist hypocrisy

Three weeks ago, I wrote about some truly irresponsible antivaccination propaganda masquerading as entertainment that aired in the form of a television show called Eli Stone. This show, which portrayed its hero taking on the case of an autistic boy whose mother blamed his autism on thimerosal (going under the fictional name “mercuritol”) in vaccines and scoring a $5.2 million settlement in the process. One consequence of this show was that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was shaken out of its inaction enough to draft a letter protesting the show and urging its cancellation of the show. Not surprisingly, this infuriated the mercury militia, leading David Kirby to write a truly ridiculous editorial to published in that repository of all things antivaccine, The Huffington Post. Clearly, the mercury militia and antivaccination movement were quite peeved that the AAP actually had the temerity to speak out against misinformation about vaccines. Even though its voice was tiny compared to a media behemoth like ABC, which is owned by Disney, even that little protest provoked a near-hysterical response.

Now, I’m happy to say, the AAP appears to be taking a more pro-active stance with regards to vaccine misinformation. Given that one of the most common tactics of the antivaccination movement is to present heart-rending stories of “vaccine-damaged” children. Indeed, this is a key strategy designed to obtain “compensation” through lawsuits and the autism omnibus. In response, the AAP has been circulating an e-mail seeking to fight fire with fire:

From: Susan Martin
Sent: Wednesday, February 13, 2008 2:29 PM
To: [email protected]
Subject: parent spokespersons


As part of our ongoing response to media stories regarding autism and vaccines, the AAP communications department is compiling a list of parents who support the AAP and are available for interviews. We are looking for two types of parents who could serve as spokespersons:

Parents of children with autism spectrum disorders who support immunization and who do not believe there is any link between their child’s vaccines and his or her autism.

Parents of children who suffered a vaccine-preventable illness. This could be a parent who declined immunization, whose child became ill before a vaccine was available, or whose child was ineligible for immunization.

We are asking for your help identifying parents who would be good spokespersons. They do not need to be expert public speakers. They just need to be open with their story and interested in speaking out on the issue. We will contact candidates in advance to conduct pre-interviews, to offer guidance on talking to reporters and to obtain a signed waiver giving us permission to release their name.

If a parent were placed on our list, we would offer their name and contact information to select media. We hope to build a list of parents from a wide range of geographical areas.

As the Jenny McCarthy and “Eli Stone” stories illustrate, this issue is likely to recur in the national and local media. The AAP is committed to doing all we can to counter such erroneous reports with factual information supported by scientific evidence and AAP recommendations.

The anti-vaccine groups often have emotional family stories on their side. The ability to offer a reporter an interview with a similarly compelling parent who is sympathetic to the AAP’s goals is a powerful tool for our media relations program.

Please contact me if you have any questions or to suggest a parent to interview.

Thank you,

Susan Stevens Martin
Director, Division of Media Relations
American Academy of Pediatrics

Here’s hoping that parents who understand the importance of vaccination and that science does not support Generation Rescue’s claim that vaccines cause autism will contact Ms. Martin to show their support. Alternatively, they can contact Kevin Leitch.

Not surprisingly, in response to Ms. Martin’s e-mail, in a breathtaking display of hypocrisy J. B. Handley, founder of the mercury militia group Generation Rescue, has posted a response on the Age of Autism blog entitled AAP Wags The Dog: Find Us Some Sick Kids Pronto!

After rehashing a bit of Ms. Martin’s e-mail, Handley begins:

As the father of an autistic child and the leader of a national autism organization, I found myself sitting at my desk, my chin nearly hitting the floor, in stunned astonishment as I read your email. Where, exactly, has the AAP’s humanity and moral compass gone?

Funny, but I’ve been asking that very question about J.B. Handley for the two and a half years since I first encountered him. After all, no misinformation about vaccines is too outrageous for his organization to purvey to the world, and he is utterly unconcerned about the effect that frightening parents into eschewing vaccination for their children can have in allowing vaccine-preventable diseases to return, as the MMR scare has done in the U.K. Moreover, he’s petty enough to buy up domain names of bloggers using Blogspot who have had the temerity to criticize his stance or him. Still, let’s see what he has to say. After bragging about how he can easily find many parents who blame vaccines for their children’s autism (never mind why anecdotes are the most unreliable of evidence, that there is no scientific evidence that’s the least bit convincing to an objective observer linking vaccines to autism, and that it’s very, very easy for human beings to confuse correlation with causation) and how these parents contact his organization all the time, he goes on:

When Generation Rescue rented a booth at your national convention 2 years ago, we were stunned by how many AAP members came to our booth, quietly mentioned that they supported what we were doing, and encouraged us to keep fighting for the kids.

Let me repeat that: Hundreds of your members congratulated my organization for fighting for the kids!

Meanwhile, employees of the AAP like yourself have your head in the sand:

Where is the media story of the AAP sounding the alarm that the prevalence of autism continues to rise?

Where is the media story of the AAP digging into the growing number of stories of children recovering from autism?

Where is the AAP when parents return to the pediatrician and explain to the doctors they trust that their child disappeared after receiving multiple vaccines?

Where is the AAP to help protect our kids from a growing, devastating epidemic of Autism, ADHD, PDD-NOS, asthma, food allergies, learning disorders, and other autoimmune issues?

You are nowhere.

You are looking for the needle in the haystack parent with the autistic child who supports vaccines.

You are looking for the parent with the illness to exploit to scare the masses.

What you should be looking for, Ms. Martin, is your own soul, which you seem to have lost somewhere along the way. Worse, particularly if you are a parent yourself, you also seem to have lost the ability to listen to the parents and to put the needs of our kids first.

Shame on you, Ms. Martin, for planning such blatant manipulation of the media.

I almost gagged when I read that last line. After all, what is Generation Rescue’s primary purpose for existence, if not to manipulate the media with stories of “vaccine-damaged” children and dubious stories of children who have “recovered” due to various unproven remedies that border on, if not cross the line into, outright quackery, such as chelation therapy? Generation Rescue proudly displays many links to advertisements that it has taken out in major newspapers:

  1. USA Today 5/24/2005
  2. The New York Times 6/8/2005
  3. The New York Times 11/14/2005
  4. USA Today 4/6/2006
  5. USA Today 9/25/2007
  6. USA Today 2/12/2008 (discussed by yours truly here)

Of course, the most amusing thing of all about this is that Generation Rescue got slapped down for its add 11/14/2005. The reason is that it listed all sorts of research studies that supposedly supported its belief that mercury in vaccines causes autism, even when those studies did not. If that isn’t “media manipulation,” I don’t know what is. Indeed, some of the researchers whose work was cited wrote a letter to the NYT complaining about the ad and disassociating themselves from Generation Rescue’s claims.

That’s not the only misadventure Generation Rescue has had trying to turn science on its head as representing its viewpoint. Last summer, it even tried to generate science supportive of its claim that vaccines cause autism in the form of an absolutely awful, badly designed telephone survey masquerading as epidemiology that–surprise! surprise!–concluded that vaccination was associated with higher rates of autism. Prometheus, Kevin Leitch, and I, among others, deconstructed the terrible methodology of the study and pointed out that, even if its findings were valid (and, given the horrible methodology, they almost certainly were not, given that the study was a mere exercise in doing multiple comparisons and seeing if anything shakes out), the study showed that in some populations vaccines appeared to be protective against autism. Even so, given that this study was plainly commissioned for P.R., rather than scientific, purposes, it succeeded to some extent in that I still see it popping up on antivaccination and “alternative” medicine websites as “evidence” that vaccines cause autism. Indeed, just last week, it popped up on that repository of all things woo and quackery, Mike Adam’s Natural News (formerly NewsTarget), as the “smoking gun” linking vaccination to neurological disorders. Despite the massive drubbing his study deservedly took in the skeptical blogosphere, J. B. Handley knows that pseudoscientific studies like this never die and, because they have the appearance of science (you know, all the “science-y” lingo), they will be given an undeservedly respectful hearing in the press. How’s that for media manipulation? Or how about engineering a protest at the headquarters of the AAP and then touting it to the press?

Pot. Kettle. Black, Mr. Handley.

In addition, on the “Testimonials” page of the Generation Rescue website, there are a number of parent testimonials and “recovery videos.” Moreover, the entire Age of Autism website is nothing, if not an attempt to “manipulate the media” in order to get the antivaccination viewpoint of Generation Rescue and similar group. If Handley is so disturbed about “manipulation of the media,” perhaps he should look at his himself and his cobloggers:

  1. All Hands on Deck: CDC Braces for Larry King Live by J. B. Handley
  2. Buy One of These Tomorrow! (boosting the Generation Rescue ad)
  3. Time to Rain on the Media Parade by Dan Olmsted
  4. ABC Drama Takes on Vaccines and Autism by Kim Stagliano
  5. Mom Calls Out AAP on ABC Letter
  6. National Autism Association: Eli Stonegate by Wendy Fournier

Note how not a critical word is mentioned over stories that support the thimerosal-autism claim, whereas any attempt to counter such stories and present the science that has not found a link between vaccines and autism as “media manipulation” or “censorship,” while one sends out e-mails to the EOH mailing list making jokes about parents of dead children in the service of mocking the AAP:

From: krstagliano
Date: Feb 16, 2008 6:57 AM
Subject: [EOHarm] Re: JB, email from AAP looking for sick kids
To: [email protected]

Can you imagine the ad campaign? Dad sitting in a confessional proclaiming his remorse and grief for not vaccinating his child, while the bell tolls in the background. Then a quick shot over to a small pink casket with a dolly on top and mother on her knees sobbing in front of the altar……[]

Is that Kim Stagliano, one of the bloggers for Age of Autism, cracking such tasteless jokes? Why, I think that it just might be her!

People forget that vaccine-preventable diseases still kill and that unscientific fearmongering about vaccines has consequences. For example, in 2005 worldwide measles still killed 345,000. Indeed, measles has come roaring back in the UK since Andrew Wakefield stoked the fears of parents. In this world of international travel, we have managed to have outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases like measles here in the U.S., as well, most recently in San Diego.

Finally, what galls me the most about J.B. Handley’s letter to the AAP is how it denigrates the experiences of parents who have had children become ill or even die from vaccine-preventable diseases. Antivaccinationists frequently claim that those of us who try to counter their claims that vaccines damaged their children do just that when we point out the unreliability of anecdotes as a form of data to detect causation, given that correlation does not necessarily equal causation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, parents facing the daily struggles of raising an autistic child or any child with serious health issues have nothing but my admiration for their caring, and few things evoke as much sympathy in me as seeing a seriously ill child. Moreover, in the rare cases when vaccine injury can be demonstrated (or even appears more likely than not), I would heartily agree that generous compensation is indicated. Fortunately, such cases are indeed rare. With these observations in mind, I’d like to close with a couple of questions. Perhaps someone could answer them for me:

If it is not “exploitation” or “media manipulation” for J. B. Handley and his crew at Generation Rescue to use stories of “vaccine-injured” children in order to gain public support for their cause, why is it “explotiation” or “media manipulation” if the AAP tries to use stories of children injured or killed by vaccine-preventable diseases because they were not vaccinated? Are not the lives of children who are injured or die of vaccine-preventable diseases as important and worthy of publicity as those of children whom Generation Rescue considers to have been injured by vaccines? If not, why not?

Inquiring minds want to know.

Finally, I will admit that the thought of dueling stories of suffering children does make me a bit queasy. However, J.B. Handley and his organization routinely use them as part and parcel of their P.R. strategy. Handley knows that it’s all about P.R., and for the most part he’s unfortunately pretty good at crafting a compelling set of stories to forward his cause. It doesn’t much matter to most people who see his anecdotes that there is no science behind his claims that vaccines cause autism and that chelation therapy and biomedical therapies can “recover” children. On the surface they appear compelling, and they definitely provoke an emotional reaction that predisposes to believe the antivaccination misinformation spewed by Generation Rescue. Very late in the game, the AAP has apparently finally realized that it is losing the P.R. battle, even though it has biomedical science on strongly its side. That’s why I hope that sane parents will contact the AAP at the number listed in the e-mail to show support, while at the same time lament that such a request is even necessary.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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