The picture painted by Del Bigtree, the former television producer at the heart of the nation’s anti-vaccination movement, is a terrifying one. He describes a world where vaccines don’t work and are instead damaging children; while pharmaceutical companies, the federal government and the media are in cahoots to suppress any opposition to them.
But, according to multiple public health experts, the facts, studies and sources that Bigtree cites only appear to back up his theories, and his conclusions fall apart with further scrutiny.
“What you’ll see is a combination of citations from legitimate work that are twisted and taken out of context, or citations from sham journals of poorly done studies,” says Sean O’Leary, practicing pediatrician in Colorado and a member of the infectious diseases committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Then the other thing you see [is] they’ll cite work that is simply opinion pieces.”
The end result, O’Leary says, is a “twisting of facts to serve [his] agenda.”
Texas-based Bigtree has recently set his sights on New York amid the largest measles outbreak in the state since the early 1990s. He hosted a conference call for the Orthodox community in March, sent a producer to Rockland County to interview people for his YouTube show in April, appeared in Rockland County in May to preach his anti-vaccine gospel to hundreds of Orthodox Jewish moms. He’s even lobbied lawmakers in Albany against the potential removal of religious exemptions to vaccines. Last week, he appeared at a “vaccine symposium” in Borough Park, Brooklyn.
His presentations appear to be crafted to frighten the listener about the dangers of vaccines while downplaying the severity of the infectious illnesses they prevent. (He even compared vaccination to the cult of child-sacrifice.) The narrative he describes plays into an almost religious worldview: That each human was born perfect and that this earth is designed to take care of us if we take care of it—without any pharmaceutical intervention.
But Bigtree is used to being accused of distorting the truth, and he is just as used to denying it.
“I like to call it missed information: this is the information the mainstream media establishment doesn’t want you to hear,” he told the crowd at a recent gathering.
So Gothamist recently examined some of the claims on his standard presentation, and did a little fact-checking:
CLAIM 1: American Children Are Dying: are less likely to survive their first year of life than other developed nations, how U.S. kids are more likely to die before adulthood, and how hospital errors are the third-leading cause of death in the nation.
REALITY: These news stories have nothing to do with vaccines. They have to do with poverty, poor social networks, premature delivery and the lack of regular access to health care. And while childhood mortality rates are higher in the U.S. than in other developed nations, they’ve gone down steadily since the 1960s (which just happens to coincide with the increased use of vaccines).
CLAIM 2: More Vaccines = More Chronic Illnessesobesity, asthma and learning disabilities as major drivers. Many of the chronic illnesses have been studied to see if they have any relationship to vaccination status. They don’t. (See Claim 8 for more details).
CLAIM 3: Vaccines KillVaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS), a database created in 1990 and managed by the federal government to keep track of potentially dangerous side-effects once a vaccine makes it to market.
REALITY: VAERS is a self-reporting mechanism where individuals, doctors, hospitals, health care providers can report a potential reactions to a vaccine, but it’s not an indication of causality. People die of heart attacks, some of them after getting vaccinated; that doesn’t mean the vaccine caused it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration monitor these reports for trends and, when they arise, conduct studies that are then vetted and investigated through the Vaccine Safety Datalink. Researchers have analyzed data from VAERS over many years and examined autopsy reports for the 2,149 deaths recorded in 16 years. (During that time period researchers estimated 2 billion doses of vaccines were distributed.) They found the same rates and causes of death in the general population were represented among the deaths reported to VAERS.
CLAIM 4: Vaccines Aren’t Tested Rigorously REALITY: Anti-vaccination activists regularly assert that vaccines are not tested against placebos to truly gauge whether they are any more effective than going without the shots, but that isn’t true. Here’s one, here’s another. Here’s a third. It is true that in some cases, when an effective vaccine already exists, guidelines from the World Health Organization prohibit administering placebos because that would leave test subjects exposed to potentially lethal illnesses. In those cases, scientists compare results to vaccines already proven effective and safe. Vaccine development is a long and complicated process that can last between 10 and 15 years. It begins in laboratories with tests on animals; from there vaccines go through three phases of clinical trials during which thousands of volunteers are administered the vaccine, with the FDA setting guidelines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even after they’re certified, vaccines continue to be monitored in multiple ways by scientists and the federal government through the Vaccine Safety Monitor Datalink. In addition, the federal government and independent researchers conduct massive epidemiological studies based on immunization data to monitor the safety of single vaccines as well as combinations of them.REALITY: They don’t. Scientists have rigorously studied this idea to see if there’s anything to it. Many studies of millions of vaccinated and unvaccinated children have looked vaccines, vaccine adjuvants and repeatedly found no association between vaccination status and autism.
These claims that vaccines, and the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine in particular, were first floated by Andrew Wakefield, the disgraced British doctor whose papers on the subject were found to be fraudulent, unethical and had to be retracted. Wakefield’s methods, as revealed by investigative reporter Brian Deer included taking payments from an attorney trying to sue the vaccine manufacturer, doctoring medical information and even paying children for blood at a birthday party.
Listen to Gwynne Hogan’s report on WNYC:
Bigtree does cite one study that found a relationship between the DTAP (diptheria, tetanus and whooping cough) vaccine and autism. The source? A controversial father and son duo who advocated for chemical castration for children with autism. One has since lost his medical license and the other was fined for practicing without one.
Dr. Peter Hotez, Professor at Baylor College of Medicine who develops vaccines and is also the father of a child with autism, said there’s also a scientific “lack of plausibility” between vaccination somehow triggering autism.
“We’ve learned so much about autism and the more than 100 genes involved in early fetal brain development involved,” he said. “Autism is set into motion…early on in pregnancy long before kids ever see vaccines.”
CLAIM 6: The Vaccine Isn’t WorkingCalifornia Department of Health’s analysis of the 2015 Disneyland measles outbreak there, which found of 82 cases where they could determine immunization status, 31 percent of those people had gotten at least one dose of the measles vaccine, leading Bigtree to determine there was, “thirty-one percent vaccine failure.”
This is a question of basic math. Two doses of the MMR vaccine (the current recommendation) have been found to be 97 percent effective at preventing measles. The general population contains far more vaccinated people than unvaccinated ones, so in any given outbreak, vaccinated individuals are bound to be overrepresented. If you’re in a room with 100 vaccinated people who get exposed to measles, 7 of them are likely to get measles. If you’re in a room with 100 unvaccinated people, 90 of them will get it. If you’re in a room with 90 vaccinated people and 10 unvaccinated ones, 6 vaccinated people will get the measles and 9 unvaccinated ones will. If all you know is that fifteen people got measles, and a bit fewer than half of them had been vaccinated, it may well seem like the vaccination doesn’t do any good, but that’s not what the results prove.
“In the end you may come up with some number like 25 to 30 percent of your cases being vaccinated,” said Dr. Kathleen Harriman with the California Department of Public Health, who wrote the cited report. “That’s often what we see. It’s really just a numbers game in a way. When you’re in a country where most people are vaccinated… many of your cases will be vaccinated.”
Harriman thought this could be confusing to laypeople so she made a graphic to help explain it.
Since the measles outbreak began last October, the health departments in Rockland County and New York City have come to realize that the amount of misinformation about vaccines is dangerous. Both departments have started releasing up-to-date breakdowns of how many unvaccinated people have gotten sick compared to vaccinated ones. In New York City, 73 percent of those who got ill had been completely unvaccinated, and just 4 percent had been completely vaccinated. (The remainder either had unknown vaccination status or just one dose of the MRR vaccine.) Likewise, in Rockland County, 77.6 percent of sickened people had no MMRs, while just 3.5 percent had two doses of the vaccine.
CLAIM 7:The Vaccine Is Causing The Current Measles Outbreaks
Dr. Harriman confirmed this was a false interpretation of her report. Health officials tested dozens of people during the outbreak to determine whether they had been exposed to the strain implicated in the Disneyland outbreak, or if they had been exposed to measles elsewhere. During that testing, they also tested “recently vaccinated persons” who had gotten rashes in order to determine if their reaction was due to the vaccine (a noncontagious, temporary rash is a possible side effect) or if they had contracted full-blown measles. Those 31 people described as having “vaccine strain” had developed rashes due to the vaccine but were not were not counted in the outbreak tally, she said.
“I’m sorry that people are a little confused by the genotype A information,” she said. “But clearly these are not measles cases and we never counted them as such.”
CLAIM 8: Unvaccinated Kids Are HealthierHis source for this claim is a “study” that was in fact an “anonymous online questionnaire,” according to the paper’s methodology; it was twice retracted from the journals in which it was included. Anti-vaccination groups helped fund the study, and it was conducted by people with ties to those groups. Many legitimate scientific studies have compared tens of thousands of vaccinated children with unvaccinated ones and found similar rates of heart disease, anemia epilepsy, asthma, autism, eczema, allergies, diabetes, and ADD and ADHD, among many other conditions.
CLAIM 9: Measles Is Great For Your HealthREALITY: Some studies have suggested links between measles infections and decreased risk for some kinds of cancers. But far more evidence shows that measles vaccination decreases mortality of all kinds. For healthy children and young adults over the age of 5 and younger than 20, measles can be mild. But for people with suppressed immune systems, pregnant women and young children the virus can have severe consequences and even cause death in rare cases. The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates about 20 percent of people who get sick with measles experience complications which can include more common effects like diarrhea, pneumonia, and more severe ones like brain swelling, seizures and deafness.
Gwynne Hogan is an associate producer at WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter at @GwynneFitz.
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