October SkepTalk: Liza Gross - "Writing About Vaccines When Evidence Doesn't Matter"

On Wednesday, October 10th, the Bay Area Skeptics hosted an entertaining and Liza GrossLiza Grossinformative one-hour talk by Liza Gross, a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She writes for numerous organizations, including the open-access biomedical journal PLoS Biology where she is a senior editor, KQED's QUEST (for which she recently interviewed our own Eugenie Scott), and several other publications. She writes about wildlife, ecology and evolution, conservation, environmental health, science policy, and many other topics.

Her talk, entitled “Writing about Vaccines When Evidence Doesn't Matter,” examined not only the claims made by people who speak out against the use of vaccines, but also the media’s role in providing them a platform for their sometimes dangerous fringe views.

Ms. Gross’ talk began with a somewhat humorous clip from “When Worlds Collide,” a 1951 science fiction film in which a planet and a star are discovered to be hurtling through space, on a collision path toward Earth. In the clip, numerous characters argue about what to do, and whether the threat is even real. Denialism abounds, leading one frustrated man to exclaim, “I think all you scientists are crackpots! Nothing is going to happen,” just as the room in which he is seated begins to shake violently, causing tables to overturn, glass to shatter, etc. The analogy was quite apt. In a very real sense, each of the components in the clip (a worldwide threat, scientists working hard to save lives, and an emotional debate about whether the threat is real) is alive today in the anti-vaccine debate. Rather than a gigantic, intergalactic menace, however, the threat created by the anti-vaccine movement is microscopic and homegrown: viruses.

Viral infections are among the largest threats to humanity, and have wrought havoc upon entire populations throughout human history. The smallpox virus alone was responsible for up to 20% of the deaths each year in Europe up to, and including, the 18th century. The advent of vaccination changed this completely. Although immunization of various kinds has been recorded as early as 1000 BCE, the modern practice of vaccination is largely a product of breakthroughs in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In that time, medical research produced vaccines for diphtheria, measles, mumps, rubella (a.k.a, German measles), smallpox, and perhaps most famously, polio. Given the seemingly miraculous improvements in life expectancy and quality of life brought by these scientific breakthroughs, one might expect nearly one-hundred percent support for their use. That assumption would be wrong.

Gone are the days when people like Jonas Salk, developer of the first polio vaccine, were universally hailed as heroes. Thanks to a few misguided celebrities, a handful of highly publicized but poorly designed studies, and an increasingly credulous public (most of whom have never experienced a world devastated by viral infection), vaccination rates are plummeting, putting millions at risk, particularly children. As David Ropeik reported in Contemporary Pediatrics in August of 2011, rates of immunization are declining rapidly across the country and around the world, causing not only increases in disease outbreaks (156 cases of measles in the first half of 2011, for instance, versus just 56 cases over the seven-year period between 2001 and 2008), but also a decrease in the effectiveness of current vaccines, partly due to the rise in disease incidence.

Ms. Gross spoke at length about periods in the history of vaccination resistance. Although various groups have expressed opposition to vaccination on religious grounds, xenophobia, or claims of the ineffectiveness of vaccines, today’s anti-vaccine fears, Ms. Gross said, are largely fueled by a 1998 paper by former surgeon and medical researcher Andrew Wakefield. In the paper, published in the British medical journal The Lancet, Wakefield and his associates claimed to have identified a new syndrome, autistic enterocolitis, claiming a link between autism and the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. As the scientific community rallied to question the claim, the 12 co-authors of the article quickly began jumping ship, distancing themselves from both Wakefield and the study. In the end, The Lancet reluctantly published a retraction, but the damage was already done. Wakefield’s subsequent troubles with the General Medical Council, who found him guilty of “dishonesty and irresponsibility,” only endeared him more to the anti-vaccine proponents as a victim of a callous and cruel medical system that refused to listen to his conclusions because they stood to lose money if vaccinations became less common.

After years of reading and writing about the anti-vaccination crowd, Ms. Gross has summarized their mis-education movement into a list of six basic tactics:

1. Conspiracy (e.g., “The government and/or scientists are working against the public interest, and engage in activities that harm us for their own financial or political gain.”)
2. Fake experts (e.g., disgraced scientist Andrew Wakefield, Generation Rescue founder J. B. Handley, former model Jenny McCarthy, actor Rob Schneider, etc.)
3. Cherry picking (i.e., choosing outdated or discredited publications as “proof” that vaccines are harmful)
4. Impossible expectations (e.g., challenging researchers to carry out a study in which vaccinated children are compared to unvaccinated children, allowing the latter to be put at risk of deadly diseases.)
5. Misrepresentation (distortions, half-truths, and lies about scientists' positions on vaccine effectiveness and safety)
6. Seeding doubt (e.g., “I’m not saying to stop vaccinating. I’m simply raising questions, and the scientists seem to be hiding the answers.”)

To aid them in their campaign, as Ms. Gross pointed out, anti-vaccine proponents have some powerful allies. Jenny McCarty, for instance, has been an almost constant presence on shows such as Oprah, Larry King Live, and will soon have her own talk show on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) which will give her daily access to millions of viewers.

The sad truth is that anti-vax tactics have already been extremely successful in convincing people to stop vaccinating their children. If parents in the state of California are any indication, the U.S. has a long, painful road ahead of it. Parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children in record numbers. This, despite last year's record-setting whooping cough outbreak. According to a recent article by Jocelyn Wiener, of the CHCF Center for Health Reporting, pediatricians and state health officials are sounding the alarm over the tripling in "personal belief exemptions" (PBE) which allow unvaccinated children to enter public school. In some parts of Santa Cruz County in California, PBE rates have risen to 17 percent or more, among the highest in the nation. This not only puts these children at risk, but also risks the health and well-being of the children with whom they come into contact.

The bright spot is that there are things we skeptics can do to help. When you see an online article with incorrect information, take the time to write a comment expressing your views and guiding people toward scientific information. Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper warning people about the dangers of not vaccinating their children. Join skeptical organizations like the Hug Me I’m Vaccinated campaign, and consider making a donation to the cause if you can. And perhaps most importantly, get yourselves and your children vaccinated, and talk about it with your friends. If you are a scientist or someone involved with communicating scientific ideas to the media, you might also consider checking out Compass, an organization that supports scientists in developing the communication skills needed to engage journalists, policymakers and other non-scientist audiences.