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Why the Press Shouldn't Dismiss Vaccine Skeptics

Posted: 01/06/2014 12:41 pm

Those who question vaccination programs are kooks or quacks, the press repeatedly tells us. The Globe and Mail, CBS News, Mother Jones and even scientific journals like Nature label skeptics as "vaccination deniers," much as global warming skeptics are called "deniers."

Slate magazine, citing the medical journal Vaccine, deplores "the global anti-vaccination movement [as] a loose coalition of rogue scientists, journalists, parents, and celebrities, who think that vaccines cause disorders like autism - a claim that has been thoroughly discredited by modern science." Commentary, a serious publication that covers politics, refers to skeptics as "vaccination truthers."

This wholesale demeaning of vaccine skeptics defies explanation. Granted, kooks and quacks exist in the vaccination field, just as they exist elsewhere. But why taint the skeptics as a whole, and fail to respectfully report dissenting views? No journalist would have had any difficulty finding dozens of distinguished skeptical scientists for the very few "rogue" scientists that the press has vilified.

How hard, for example, should it have been for the press to notice the views of Dr. Bernadine Healy, the former head of the National Institute of Health, the former head of the American Red Cross, and the former Chair of the White House Cabinet Group on Biotechnology, one of several White House positions she held in service to three U.S. presidents.

Dr. Healy criticized the public health establishment for being "too quick to dismiss [vaccine concerns] as irrational...The more you delve into it, if you look at the basic science, if you look at the research that's been done in animals, if you also look at some of these individual cases, and if you look at the evidence... what you come away with is that the question [of vaccine safety] has not been answered."

Dr. Healy's views would have been particularly easy to find because they were actually aired by one of America's leading journalists, Sharyl Attkisson of CBS News, in one of the rare instances in which the mainstream press fairly presented a skeptic's perspective on the vaccine issue.

Journalists should also have had no trouble finding Dr. Diane Harper, a lead developer of the controversial Gardasil vaccine and another interviewee of Attkisson's. Dr. Harper believes this vaccine, which is being recommended for teens and pre-teens to combat cervical cancer, is less effective than the common Pap smear, and that it may harm more children than it helps. "Parents and women must know that deaths occurred," she stated in arguing that parents need to know that they could be subjecting their children to needless risks.

Journalists might have sought the views of skeptics among academics. At the University of British Columbia, for example, researchers Chris Shaw and Lucija Tomljenovic in the Faculty of Medicine state that the cervical cancer vaccine may lead to death among susceptible members of the population.

Their views have been quite public, as were those of Professor Walter Spitzer of McGill University, considered Canada's "dean" of epidemiology. In 2002 testimony to a U.S. Congressional committee hearing into the safety of various childhood vaccines, he matter-of-factly stated that, based on the evidence to date involving one of the vaccine combinations under scrutiny, "I cannot recommend it ... for my own grandchildren."

Finally, journalists who place special stock in the credibility of government scientists might have noticed the views of none other than Peter Fletcher, former Chief Scientific Officer at the UK's Department of Health.

Dr. Fletcher was also the Medical Assessor to the Committee on Safety of Medicines, and thus the very person who determined for the UK government whether vaccines were safe. Dr. Fletcher has several times gone public with his concerns over vaccines, and with his frustration that "no one in authority will even admit [a vaccine-related problem could be] happening, let alone try to investigate the causes."

Those who are labelled as anti-vaccination rogue scientists are hardly rogues -- they are found at the pinnacle of the medical establishment. And they are hardly anti-vaccination. All of the scientists that I mention in this article value vaccines for the great good that they can do. Their opposition is to mass vaccination of the population, which discounts the risk that people with certain predispositions can react badly to various vaccines, just as people with certain predispositions can react badly to various prescription drugs.

Identify the vulnerable populations, the skeptics say, so that all can be confident when vaccines are administered. For this, they deserve our appreciation, not our ridicule.

Lawrence Solomon is research director at Toronto-based Consumer Policy Institute. LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com


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