Kaiser Health News ran an article recently discussing the effect of tightening up vaccination exemptions on the rate of childhood vaccination. The article, States Looking for More Effective Ways to Encourage Vaccinations, summarized current legislative efforts to reduce the available reasons for exemption, such as California's new law eliminating personal belief and religious exemptions.
According to the article, while some areas, such as Oregon, have high exemption rates, in most places the percentage of vaccinated children is greater than 90 percent. This presents an interesting conundrum. Parents have not seen an actual case of measles or whooping cough so they don't understand how dangerous these diseases can be, said an official of the Immunization Action Coalition quoted in the article. In the absence of disease, the alleged risks of vaccines are easier to sell.
So far, so good. While not ploughing any new ground, to this point the article is a nice summary of state exemption laws and how lack of experience with vaccine-preventable diseases can unbalance the risk-benefit calculation parents make.
But I was stunned by what came next.
"Those risks are real, says Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center, a group that advocates that people be able to decline mandatory vaccines based on their philosophical or personal beliefs. Fisher testified before the California State Assembly against the new law, which takes effect next July.
"'Some people are more susceptible than others to injury or death from vaccines," Fisher says. "But it's not clear who is at higher risk.'"
I was under the impression that Barbara Loe Fisher had been so thoroughly discredited that no responsible journalist, least of all one working for Kaiser Health News, would ever quote her as an authoritative source on vaccination. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that a journalist who doesn't know Fisher's backstory has no business reporting on vaccination.
Journalist Seth Mnookin took the media to task for its credulous reporting on the vaccine "controversy" in his excellent book, The Panic Virus. I thought the media, suitably chastised, had learned its lesson from Mnookin. Here's how Mnookin describesFisher's talk at the conference of an organization promoting the discredited MMR-autism connection: "Barbara Loe Fisher, the grande dame of the American anti-vaccine movement, explained how vaccines are a 'de facto selection of the genetically vulnerable for sacrifice' and said that doctors who administer vaccines are the moral equivalent of 'the doctors at Nuremberg.' (That parallel, she said, had been pointed out to her by Andrew Wakefield.)" Wakefield, the originator of the bogus vaccine-autism connection, who has shared the stage with Fisher at several events, was stripped of his medical license in connection with this malfeasance.
What's even worse, there is a link in the KHN article to the notoriously anti-vaccination website, National Vaccine Information Center, which, contrary to its name, is chock full of misinformation. NVIC was founded by Fisher and she remains an official of the organization.
The link takes the reader to a presentation Fisher gave in 1997 (when her star was considerably brighter) arguing there is a "moral right" to a personal belief exemption to vaccination. In support of her questionable arguments, Fisher makes the absurd statement that each vaccination of a person is "experimental." As she done before, she inflates the meaning of "informed consent" until it is no longer a right to be informed of the risks and benefits before consenting to treatment, but rather a "right" to refuse vaccination based on whatever pseudoscience one happens to believe. This includes the nonexistent autism-MMR connection, which the NVIC continues to exploit. The argument builds to the point of hysteria, with Fisher invoking images of "government officials who track and hunt children down to ensure compliance with mandatory vaccination laws."
Fisher's and NVIC's critics are many and her sins against science and medicine well-known. Among her critics is Dr. Paul Offit, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the Director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, whom Fisher called a "pro-forced-vaccination proponent." In April, 2011, NVIC ads on a Times Square jumbotron criticized childhood immunization and promoted an alternative medicine website. The American Academy of Pediatrics protested to CBS, the jumbotron's owner: "By providing advertising space to an organization like the NVIC . . . you are putting thousands of lives of children at risk."
In announcing the creation of KHN, Kaiser Family Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman said, "I've always believed that good journalism is a key to informed debate and good public policy, since it's through news coverage that most people understand policy." Quoting Fisher's anti-vaccination rhetoric is the antithesis of "informed debate" and no "good public policy" will come from linking to the misinformation on the NVIC website.