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, June 28, 2005

Media stirs up faux vaccine controversy

Media stirs up faux vaccine controversy
Media watch by David Cohen

So the "debate rages" about the campaign to immunise young New Zealanders against the epidemic strain of meningococcal disease, according to the New Zealand Herald. What's more, notes the Dominion Post, "weeks of controversy" surrounding the safety and testing of the MeNZB vaccine could permanently hurt the immunisation cause. It could spell the end of "widespread support" for vaccination, warns the Christchurch Press.

Doesn't the wintry air just positively reek of crisis?

Hmm. I think it was Katharine Hepburn who said she didn't care what the papers said as long as it wasn't true. Even so, you have to draw the line somewhere.

There is no crisis. There is no controversy. There isn't even really any serious debate.

More like hundreds of thousands of parents quietly going about immunising their kids from a disease that has killed hundreds of New Zealanders and sickened thousands more over the past 14 years. And not one of the country's scientists has suggested things should be otherwise.

The opposition has been threefold, and what an odd triple-brew they are too.

First, a tiny little mob of crusaders for whom vaccination of any type represents an evil capitalist conspiracy.

Then a solitary list MP, Sue Kedgley, the same Green Party representative who not so long ago was spoofed into lending her name to a bogus campaign to ban dihydrogen monoxide (aka water ­ those who played the jape told Ms Kedgley the chemical is "colourless, odourless, tasteless and kills uncounted thousands of people each year" adding that it is known to be present in "some imported food").

Finally, and most influentially, there has been a number of news chiefs who believe these individuals' zany views merit serious media attention.

One example of the alleged debate might suffice. Late last month, Russell Brown wrote on his weblog about the current immunisation programme. He asked whether adverse responses to the vaccine were possibly being under-reported by the Ministry of Health.

Mr Brown is no academic authority on immunological safety and -- to be fair -- neither was he pretending to be one. His online piece was an anecdotal affair to do with his older son missing school for three days after receiving a shot. Nothing wrong with that.

Or so it appeared. Within a day, National Radio's flagship newsmagazine show, Nine to Noon, had led a show with news of Mr Brown's "findings," giving them more than equal time to the rebuttals made later by bemused health officials. On the same day, he turned down another interview request from 3 News.

By the following Sunday, Mr Brown was back at it on the radio again, on his own Mediawatch show, being interviewed by somebody else about whether it had been a sensible call for the state-funded broadcaster to have interviewed him in the first place.

Well, was it? As Nine to Noon host Linda Clark pointed out on the day, repeatedly, Mr Brown is a journalist, one whose opinions are "widely read" to boot, and therefore he is qualified to speak on biologic plausibility and unique lab symptoms. But isn't the world already rather full of such people? And if what Ms Clark says is really the case ­ if all that's needed to be a medical authority is to be a known journalist ­ then why bother having doctors at all?

Real doctors know, of course, vaccine-fuelled faux-controversies are not unique to New Zealand. In the US, a similar non-debate to the one taking place here has been on whether vaccines cause childhood autism. Here again, the actual conversation involves only a tiny fringe of anti-capitalist types and some ideologically sympathetic news editors, along with ­ this being America ­ the trial lawyers, who have somehow convinced 4100 vulnerable parents to bring a risible class-action suit against the pharmaceutical industry.

In Nashville recently, I attended a small media seminar at Vanderbilt University, along with science reporters from the news networks CNN, CBS, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and American National Public Radio among others, where we heard geneticists, epidemiologists, paediatricians, toxicologists, neuroscientists and statisticians pour scorn on every conceivable facet of both the general anti-vaccine hype and the specific vaccine = autism case. Again and again and again, the allegedly causal relationship between immunisation and the genetically-based neurological disorder was given short shrift.

Moreover, as many of the physicians pointed out, it's not as if any real debate is taking place: no scholar from any reputable university or hospital in the northern hemisphere is lending his or her weight in the other direction in this entirely media-generated "debate."

In the US at least, there are signs the media may finally be taking that lesson on board. Just last week, for example, the ABC News network abruptly canned a scheduled interview with Robert F Kennedy Jr, the author of a barmy diatribe in this month's Rolling Stone magazine on the (now-abandoned) use of thimerosal, a mercury-containing preservative, in vaccines and its effects on childhood disorders.

As of Tuesday this week, news of Mr Kennedy's non-appearance on ABC had been reported in only one of the world's online news sources --