Fear sells. Parents are set up to respond to fear-based propaganda quite handily: a new baby in the house puts everyone on alert, like having a delicate glass globe balanced on a knife's edge, ready to fall at the mere hint of a breeze.
The information war over vaccination is an obvious reflection of this fear. Public health has had its hands full during this war, but has failed to really counter the misinformation in vaccine-hesitant communities. We are in desperate need for a new message, and a group of high school students from California have made one in a most spectacular way.
On Thursday May 1st, 2014, in Washington D.C., a national launch of a film called Invisible Threat took place for lawmakers in the U.S. The film was created by high school students at Carlsbad High School in Carlsbad California as a part of a TV and film program called CHSTV. In the past they had produced award-winning documentaries written and produced by students on the holocaust and food insecurity and it was after several suggestions from the Rotary Club, a community service organisation, that they acquiesced and made a film about vaccine hesitancy.
According to Lisa Posard, a teacher at Carlsbad and producer of the film, once the anti-vaccine community got wind of the production through a small news article in a local paper, the threats and emails started and almost stalled their production. At a media call for the film, she confirmed that after the resistance they received from white-supremacists over their holocaust documentary, they considered abandoning the vaccine documentary all together.
The students pushed back, however, and would not give up their investigation. They have since produced a film that has been lauded by the Centre for Disease Control in Atlanta, Every Child by Two and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. The film has become a standard educational tool at hundreds of health-care sites across the US and they are currently searching for a producer to release it commercially. These students will not give up.
It is essential that they do not. With outbreaks of measles and mumps all over North America, the weakness in our defenses against communicable diseases are showing. Measles has a death rate of 1 per 1000 cases and mumps can cause sterility in the teenagers it has afflicted, but this has not stopped the alternative medical establishment from doubling down on their confusing and uninformed campaign against vaccines. Just this week, the Calgary Express interviewed another homeopath who was spreading the bogus autism-vaccine myth and pushing magical potions to prevent dangerous infections instead.
Despite Health Canada's change to the labelling standard on "homeopathic vaccines" called nosodes, manufacturers continue to push their products as the best way to prevent diseases like the flu. On this website that sells Boiron's Influenzinum 9C it lists the Health Canada mandated caveat that these products are "not a replacement for vaccines" but at the same time claims that Influezinum is the "best choice as a flu preventative." The fact that Health Canada continues to allow the sale of these products and refuses to crack down on retailers making these bogus claims is deploring and is another black eye on the face of natural health products regulation in Canada. We need a stronger message.
Invisible Threat delivers just such a message. With interviews from both sides, it shows the devastating effects that vaccine hesitancy can have on a child and a family. We have very good health care in North America, it is true, but children can still succumb to these diseases. Many of the current cases of measles in the U.S. can be traced to importation of the disease from areas where the disease is still rampant and while polio cases have not surfaced in North America, the disease still exists overseas only a plane ride away.
Dr. Mark Sawyer is a children's infectious disease specialist from San Diego and was interviewed in the film. He agrees that this threat is real: "There are probably people getting off of planes in America shedding the polio virus," he said, during the same media call as Posard. "I hope through this film, the next generation of parents will make better decisions than this current generation is making."
The students from the film worked independently on this project, with no funding or support from the pharmaceutical industry and wrote and directed the film themselves. Despite this, the taunts and threats have continued unabated. "It has been non-stop," said Posard, "We continue to be affected by these calls."
Those who mistrust the medical community and the manufacturers of vaccines will not go away. The conspiracy is too juicy and fed by real conspiracies like the burying of data about the risks of smoking or the spread of uncertainty and doubt about climate change by the Koch Brothers and their kin. While the right hides its head in the sand, the left throw sand in the face of corporate science, and the rest of us are left in the middle wondering who is correct -- an impossible task for most.
Science can help. While bias does exist and media and special interests, including corporations, spin science messaging to their own advantage, science remains as the best way we have to uncover the truth about the universe. Despite the myth-makers, the spin addicts, and the conspiracy nuts, cigarette use has gone down, climate science has become even more exact, and vaccines have been shown to be both safe and effective.
The students of Carlsbad High School have shown that the public can have access to the truth, and we should thank them for it.