Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Vaccine Info on the Web: Fact or Fiction?

Vaccine Info on the Web: Fact or Fiction?
by Stacy Mintzer Herlihy and Esther Aronson, M.D.

Before reaching his second birthday, the average toddler will get inoculations against 10 diseases. To find out more about these vaccines, many moms and dads turn to the Internet for information. And while that might sound like a great idea, sometimes this method of research has the potential to create more problems than it solves.

You can't practice medicine without a license. But you can set up your own website on medical topics without consulting with anyone at all. The Net makes it easier to find information, but it also makes it easier for bad information to parade as fact.

Fortunately though, the Web does offer many ways to help parents. There's a vast supply of terrific material at your fingertips if you know where to look. Many solid sources of information about vaccines is available merely by typing in a Web address. And dozens of sites are authored by health experts with the specific intention of helping those with no medical training make sense of this important subject.

Where to Search

A very good place to start any search about vaccines is with the website maintained by the American Academy of Pediatrics, at This site has lots of detailed information for anxious parents. You'll find topics such as the history and current status of each vaccine-preventable disease, state-by-state vaccination requirements, and information about vaccinations for teenagers.

Another website that deserves a close look is that of the National Network for Immunization Information (NNii). The address is, and NNii says it "is committed to providing parents with the most up-to-date, scientifically valid information on immunizations." In keeping with this mission, the homepage links to an area written just for parents. The Frequently Asked Questions section there has a PDF file about individual immunizations. There's also data about how vaccines work, how they're selected, and what steps are taken to ensure vaccine safety.

Every Possible Vaccine

Two other enormously valuable websites are those run by the Centers for Disease Control and the Allied Vaccine Group. The URL for the CDC's website is Dozens of articles about every possible vaccine are listed. Of particular note is an article entitled Six Common Misconceptions under the section "Why Immunize?" It directly examines the claims found in most antivaccination material.

The Allied Vaccine Group ( will lead you to websites "dedicated to presenting valid scientific information about the sometimes confusing subject of vaccines." The website's great strength is its searchable database. For instance, if you type in "mmr and autism," you can get direct access to more than 20 articles about this controversy.

If you want even more information, the website maintained by the nonprofit Immunization Action Coalition,, is one more great place to look. Click on the Concerns About Vaccines link (under "Topics of Interest") to find out about nearly every apprehension ever raised concerning vaccines.

Debunking Misinformation

One of the hazards of using the Internet as a source of information is that parents may encounter blatantly false information. The good news is: there are sites specifically devoted to examining and debunking scientific misinformation—especially about vaccinations. One of the best known is Quackwatch, run by Dr. Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist. His website has a section about vaccination misconceptions at:

Antivaccine claims often come in a pseudoscientific guise, with reams of medical articles as references that supposedly support them. However, often the references supplied don't support the claims—and sometimes contradict them. Pathologist Ed Friedlander addresses this in an article on his website:

If you still have concerns or questions about immunizations, you should discuss them with your pediatrician or family practitioner. In the meantime, every parent should know that reliable sources of information on this vitally important topic do exist and are instantly available on the World Wide Web.

Problem Websites

How do you spot a website with questionable credibility?

1. The website should state clearly who created it, and ideally this information should be found on the home page. If you can't find it, consider this a red flag.
2. Excessive emotional appeals are not backed up with factual evidence. For instance, a parent may state her child was injured by a vaccination. Unless she has medical confirmation, this information tells you nothing.
3. Check the bibliography. Any articles on the site should come from medical journals rather than newspaper articles. Sources should be recent and focus on humans. Just because a vaccine causes certain defects in mice does not mean your baby will be similarly affected.
4. If a site endorses and sells a product, be very wary, especially if it promises all kinds of health benefits.
5. Websites that shout about "huge cover-ups" and "big business pHARM companies" should send you looking somewhere else.

Stacy Mintzer Herlihy is a freelance writer from Roseland. Esther Aronson is a physician in family practice in Israel.

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