Earlier this month, the New York Times published an article titled “Anti-Vaccine Activists Have Taken Vaccine Science Hostage” by Melinda Wenner Moyer, a contributing editor at Scientific American. She acknowledges that scientists whose findings don’t support public vaccine policy face pressure not to publish their research. Yet, remarkably, she blames this situation not on the perverse influence of the government and vaccine industry on the science, but on critics and parents who recognize that this perversion exists and dissent from public policy!
Her article provides a useful illustration of the institutionalized bias that exists, and of how the mainstream media serve to manufacture consent for public vaccine policy rather than properly informing the public about what science has to say about it.
Moyer begins by expressing her opinion that parents who obtain exemptions so their child can attend public school without having to strictly follow the routine childhood vaccine schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are making “wrongheaded decisions”.
So right there just two sentences into the article, we observe a dogmatic adherence to the assumptions underlying public policy. To Moyer, the government’s public policy recommendations are beyond reproach. To her, public policy’s one-size-fits-all approach to disease prevention is not just reasonable, but unquestionable.
One would think a science and health writer and Scientific American editor purporting to help educate the public about the vaccine issue would recognize that the risk-benefit analysis of vaccination needs to be made for each vaccine and for each individual child.
But instead, right off the bat, Moyer disacknowledges the facts that some children are at lower risk of a given disease than other children and that some children may be at higher risk of vaccine injury than other children.
So Moyer from her second sentence arrogantly condescends to parents everywhere, second guessing their judgment as the parents of the children for whom exemptions are obtained, who, along with their child’s doctor, are the only ones possessive of the specialized knowledge of the individual child required to reasonably make that decision.
Moyer next instructs her readers that the reason parents are choosing to exempt their children from one or more vaccine requirements is due to their supposedly irrational “fear that vaccines are somehow dangerous, even though research shows the opposite.”
That is, Moyer boldly asserts that science shows that vaccines aren’t in any way dangerous. The first definition of “dangerous” offered by Merriam-Webster is “involving possible injury, pain, harm, or loss”. So Moyer is literally claiming that vaccination doesn’t entail any kind of risk.
That is, of course, a bald-faced lie. Anyone can see that’s a lie simply by reading through the warnings included in the manufacturers’ package inserts that come in the boxes of their vaccine products.
Indeed, how can Moyer’s claim that vaccination doesn’t involve a possible risk of harm be reconciled with the fact that, in order to sustain public policy, the government in 1986 granted broad legal immunity from vaccine injury lawsuits to manufacturers of vaccines on the CDC’s childhood schedule and established the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which effectively shifts the cost burden for vaccine injuries from the pharmaceutical industry onto the taxpaying consumers? (The program is funded by an excise tax on every vaccine dose and has to date awarded about $3.9 billion to petitioners who filed vaccine injury claims.)
How can her claim that vaccination doesn’t involve risk be reconciled with the fact that the Supreme Court in 2011 upheld this legal immunity on the grounds that vaccine side effects resulting in injury or death are “unavoidable” and “design defects” are “not a basis for liability”? (The only grounds for suing a vaccine manufacturer remaining open are if the vaccine was not properly prepared or is not accompanied by proper directions and warnings.)
So before we even get into the substance of Moyer’s op-ed, we can see quite clearly that she is a faithful adherent to what we can call the vaccine religion. She is herself heavily indoctrinated in the dogma that underlies public policy and so, even when the evidence is against her, she rationalizes her personal belief system about vaccines by attacking those who criticize the very same policy she is trying to defend.
From her false premise that vaccination entails no risk of harm and that any decision not to vaccinate is therefore “wrongheaded”, she argues that “the cloud of fear surrounding vaccines is having another nefarious effect: It is eroding the integrity of vaccine science.”
She relates her own experience of how, in reporting about vaccines, “When I tried to report on unexpected or controversial aspects of vaccine efficacy or safety, scientists often didn’t want to talk with me.”
The conclusion she draws from her experience with those scientists who would talk to her is that “Scientists are so terrified of the public’s vaccine hesitancy that they are censoring themselves, playing down undesirable findings and perhaps even avoiding undertaking studies that could show unwanted effects. Those who break these unwritten rules are criticized.”
In other words, by Moyer’s own account, scientists face pressure not to publish findings contrary to public policy and, if they do, to downplay the significance.
Moyer’s headline therefore should have informed Times readers “Public Vaccine Policy Has Taken Science Hostage”. Instead, though, she attempts to blame “Anti-Vaccine Activists” who disseminate information that might lead parents to conclude that strictly following the CDC’s recommendations might not be the best thing for their child.
It’s important to emphasize that Moyer is not writing to defend how dissenting research findings are being censored. She rather rightly criticizes this state of affairs, stating that “Progress requires scientific candor and a willingness to ask inconvenient questions.”
And yet, where is her own scientific candor when she condescends to tell parents throughout the United States that if they don’t strictly follow the CDC’s routine childhood schedule, they are making a “wrongheaded” decision?
Where is the evidence of her own willingness to ask inconvenient questions when it comes to public vaccine policy when she is herself guilty of propagating a blatant falsehood; namely, vaccination entails no risk?
Instructively, every single one of the pieces of evidence she provides to support her argument actually demonstrates that the fundamental problem is the adherence to the dogma underlying public policy that Moyer herself exemplifies in just her first two sentences.
Exhibit A: The CDC’s Bogus Claims about the Flu Shot’s Effect on Mortality
The first example that Moyer presents that is supposed to help convince us that vocal critics of public policy are the problem is a study published in 2005 by a team of researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). They way Moyer tells the story, the study merely showed “that the flu vaccine prevented fewer deaths than expected in people over 65”, but that the researchers nevertheless came under fire for publishing their findings.
Moyer quotes lead researcher Lone Simonsen recalling having been lectured, “What are you doing, Lone? You are ruining everything.” Today, Simonsen observes, their findings are “no longer controversial”, but it took ten years for public vaccine policy defenders to lower their resistance to what everyone now agrees was good science.
Yet the lesson Moyer draws for us isn’t that the powerful influences of the government and vaccine industry have created an institutionalized bias favoring public policy, but that, “It’s understandable for scientists to be nervous. The internet has made it easy for anti-vaccine activists to mislead. Dr. Simonsen’s study, for instance, inspired a story with the ridiculous headline, ‘Flu Vaccines Are Killing Senior Citizens, Study Warns.’”
The headline Moyer cites to support her case is indeed false; the NIH study did not warn that the influenza vaccine increased the risk of death among the elderly. And Moyer is right to criticize such false reporting.
However, nowhere did Dr. Simonsen suggest that the problem was that her findings were being distorted by “anti-vaccine activists”.
On the contrary, she was clear that the problem was that public policy supporters were ostracizing her and her team for publishing research that called into question CDC policy. The problem wasn’t that their findings were being twisted, but that public policy advocates within the medical establishment demonstrated dogmatic resistance to their actual findings!
Furthermore, Moyer isn’t exactly forthcoming in her characterization of the significance of the study. So here’s what you need to know:
The primary stated goal of the CDC in recommending universal vaccination for influenza is to reduce flu-related mortality among those aged sixty-five and older, the age group at highest risk of potentially deadly complications. However, the CDC only assumed that the vaccine would do so. As the NIH researchers noted, this outcome had “never been studied in clinical trials”.
Nevertheless, the CDC was claiming at the time that the vaccine was as high as 80 percent effective at preventing influenza-related deaths among the elderly. To support its claim of an enormous benefit, the CDC had also relied on a meta-analysis of observational studies that concluded that vaccination reduces the number of flu-season deaths among the elderly from any cause “by an astonishing 50%”.
And yet, as the NIH researchers also noted, despite a considerable increase in vaccination coverage among the elderly—from at most 20 percent before 1980 to 65 percent in 2001—pneumonia and influenza mortality rates actually increased substantially during this same period.
Also contradicting the CDC’s claims, the NIH researchers found that, over the course of thirty-three flu seasons, influenza-related deaths were on average only about 5 percent and “always less than 10% of the total number of winter deaths among the elderly.”
The obvious question was: How could it be possible for the influenza vaccine to reduce by half deaths during winter from any cause when no more than one-tenth of deaths in any given flu season could be attributed to influenza?
The most obvious answer was that it couldn’t, and so the researchers examined more closely the methodology of the observational studies that the CDC was relying upon. The conclusion they drew from doing so was that the CDC’s implausible numbers were due to a systemic bias in those studies. There was a “disparity among vaccination” in these studies between cohorts that received a flu vaccine and those that didn’t. Specifically, it wasn’t that vaccinated individuals were less likely to die, but that sick elderly people whose frail condition made them more likely to die during the coming flu season were less likely to get a flu shot.
The NIH researchers also commented on the high effectiveness of naturally acquired immunity to influenza viruses at reducing mortality. The “sharp decline” in influenza-related deaths among the elderly in the years after the emergence of influenza A(H3N2) viruses during the 1968 pandemic “was most likely due to the acquisition of natural immunity to these viruses.” Vaccination, on the other hand, the data suggested, “provided little or no mortality benefit beyond natural immunization acquired during the first decade of emergence of the A(H2N2) virus.”
The 2005 study was followed by a number of others that confirmed their finding that the CDC’s claims were based on studies that were fatally flawed due to a selection bias sometimes referred to as a “healthy user bias”.
A study published in 2006 in the International Journal of Epidemiology concluded that “preferential receipt of vaccine by relatively healthy seniors” was an inherent selection bias that “was sufficient to account entirely for the associations observed” in the studies the CDC was relying on to support its claims.
In other words, it wasn’t just that the vaccine didn’t reduce mortality among the elderly as much as the CDC had claimed, but that there was no credible evidence that the vaccine reduced mortality at all.
(I’ve written previously at length about the CDC’s discredited claims about the influenza vaccine’s effectiveness. To learn more, read my article “How the CDC Uses Fear and Deception to Sell More Flu Vaccines”, which is part two of an ongoing series.)
In February of this year, a review of the published scientific literature by the prestigious Cochrane Collaboration similarly found no good scientific evidence to support the assumption underlying CDC policy that mass vaccination would reduce the mortality rate among the elderly.
Furthermore, a 2010 Cochrane review of the influenza vaccine in healthy adults not only found “no evidence that vaccines prevent viral transmission or complications”—the two central assumptions underlying CDC policy—but also that none of the studies included in their review even considered the question of whether the CDC’s assumptions were actually true!
The Cochrane researchers further commented that “reliable evidence on influenza vaccines is thin but there is evidence of widespread manipulation of conclusions and spurious notoriety of the studies.”
They weren’t talking about “anti-vaccine activists” who were misinforming the public about the science: they were talking about the demonstrated bias of industry-funded studies and about how the CDC itself was misinforming the public!
The Cochrane researchers noted how previous reviews had been “extensively misquoted in public policy documents”, and the specific example they cited was a 2009 CDC policy document outlining its rationale for universal influenza vaccination. They concluded from the CDC’s gross misrepresentation of the science that “The CDC authors clearly do not weight interpretation by quality of the evidence, but quote anything that supports their theory.”
(I discuss the findings of Cochrane reviews with respect to the influenza vaccine in much greater detail in part one of my aforementioned series, “Should You Get the Flu Shot Every Year? Don’t Ask the New York Times.”)
So, as you can see, it wasn’t just that one 2005 study by Lone Simonsen and her team of researchers showed that the influenza vaccine “prevented fewer deaths than expected in people over 65”, but that claims the CDC has made about the vaccine’s effectiveness to support its primary rationale for recommending universal influenza vaccination have been thoroughly discredited by the scientific community.
Exhibit B: How the Flu Shot Can Increase the Risk of Getting the Flu
Moyer’s misrepresentation of the issue and misidentification of the fundamental problem is further evidenced throughout the rest of her New York Times op-ed.
She quotes Andrew Read, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics at Pennsylvania State University saying, “Scientists’ perception of public irrationality is having an impact on our ability to rationally discuss things that deserve discussion.”
But we’ve already seen how Moyer herself shares the perception that anyone who chooses not to strictly follow the CDC’s vaccine recommendations is behaving irrationally and making a “wrongheaded” decision. She therefore only sees Read’s statement as indicative that the problem is “public irrationality”. However, Mr. Read’s statement is better understood as indicative that the fundamental problem is scientists’ false perception that any decision not to vaccinate must be an irrational one without any scientific basis. It rather indicates that the problem is the very same kind of dogmatic adherence to existing policy that Ms. Moyer herself demonstrates.
That is to say, what the statement of Mr. Read’s is actually evidence of is that an institutionalized bias exists when it comes to vaccines. What it actually speaks to is how public policy has taken science hostage. Moyer simply refuses to see this due to her own dogmatism.
Moyer then quotes Mr. Read further, which doesn’t do much good to help her case. Far from identifying public policy critics as the problem, she quotes him saying he’s “felt the pressure” from his own colleagues at scientific conferences “not to talk too openly” about his own work on how vaccines put evolutionary pressure on pathogens.
The public just isn’t supposed to know, evidently, that mass vaccination could potentially result in evolution of pathogens into even more virulent forms, for example (the same way irresponsible use of antibiotics has given rise to anti-biotic resistant “superbugs”).
Moyer’s next example is a 2009 study by Canadian researchers who “stumbled across unexpected data that suggested a link between seasonal flu shots and an increased risk for pandemic flu.” Admittedly, “one possible interpretation” of this finding “is that seasonal flu shots inhibit immunity to those [pandemic] strains.”
She quotes one of the researchers, Danuta Skowronski, talking about how they received “tremendous pushback” for this work, including suggestions that their findings should not be published.
Once again, Moyer’s example is evidence that the fundamental problem is not the existence of public policy critics, but the existence of an institutionalized bias among policymakers and researchers within the medical establishment.
And, once again, Moyer chooses not to take the opportunity to properly inform the public about this specific issue. So here’s what you need to know:
In April 2010, the aforementioned study was published in the journal PLoS Medicine reporting the “unexpected” finding from four epidemiologic studies in Canada that receipt of the influenza vaccine for the 2008 to 2009 season, while apparently effective in reducing the risk of illness due to the seasonal flu, was associated with an increased risk of illness due to the pandemic influenza A(H1N1) “swine flu” virus during the spring and summer of 2009.
While cautioning that their result could be due to some unidentified selection bias, they suggested that, if real, this finding could be due to the difference in the way the vaccine affects the immune system compared with natural infection. Under this hypothesis, repeat vaccination “effectively blocks the more robust, complex, and cross-protective immunity afforded by prior infection.”
Put more simply, when unvaccinated people are infected with the seasonal influenza virus, they have an opportunity to develop a robust “cell-mediated” immunity that not only protects against that strain of the virus, but is also cross-protective against other strains. People who’ve annually received the influenza vaccine, on the other hand, “may have lost multiple opportunities for infection-induced cross-immunity.”
This is because the vaccine is designed to stimulate a strong antibody response, or humoral immunity, but does not confer the same kind of robust cell-mediated immunity as natural infection.
In short, unvaccinated individuals who’d been naturally infected had gained immunity not only against the seasonal strain of the influenza virus, but had also gained protection against the pandemic H1N1 virus, whereas the vaccinated individuals received no such benefit from the vaccine.
That PLoS Medicine study is not the only one whose findings indicate that the influenza vaccine can actually increase the risk of becoming ill. Another study published in 2011 in the Journal of Virology confirmed that annual influenza vaccination indeed hampers the development of robust cell-mediated immunity that would come from natural infection, which would offer protection not only against the infecting strain of the virus, but other strains as well. Repeat annual vaccination, on the other hand, “may render young children who have not previously been infected with an influenza virus more susceptible to infection with a pandemic influenza virus of a novel subtype.” (Emphasis added.)
A study published in March 2012 in Clinical Infectious Diseases conducted a randomized, placebo-controlled trial to put these earlier findings to the test. What they found is that, in the nine months following vaccination, “recipients had an increased risk of virologically-confirmed non-influenza infections.” (Emphasis added.)
That is, in addition to increasing the risk of infection with a pandemic strain of influenza, vaccination was found to be associated with an increased risk of illness due to other viruses, as well. These included rhinoviruses (which causes the common cold), coxsackie viruses, and echoviruses. This suggests that the natural immunity gained from infection with influenza not only confers protection from multiple strains of influenza, but also from other viruses. Again, vaccination does not confer that benefit.
A CDC-funded study published in September 2014 also in Clinical Infectious Diseases looked at five years of vaccination data and found that the more people were vaccinated in prior years, the less effective the vaccine was at preventing that current season’s dominant H3N2 virus. As the study authors put it, “vaccine-induced protection was greatest for individuals not vaccinated during the prior 5 years.”
By Ms. Moyer’s reasoning, none of this science should indicate to us that perhaps educating the public about how to maintain a healthy and strong immune system, including through a nutritious diet, exercise, and maintenance of sufficient levels of vitamin D (deficiency of which is a known risk factor for influenza infection), would be a more effective, far less expensive, and unoppressive approach to preventing illness from influenza viruses; none of this science should suggest to any of us that following the CDC’s advice to get an annual flu shot might not be such a good idea after all.
After all, to Moyer, it makes no difference whether such a decision was arrived at on the basis of “anti-vaccine” misinformation or on the basis of good scientific evidence; that it is “wrongheaded” is simply an article of faith.
Exhibit C: How the Flu Vaccine Can Increase the Risk of Miscarriage
Continuing, Moyer cites a CDC study published in September 2017 that found an association “between a flu vaccine and miscarriage”.
This is significant because the CDC recommends that pregnant women, too, get the seasonal flu shot. Yet the CDC does not warn pregnant women to get versions of the flu shot that do not contain the preservative thimerosal, which is about 50 percent ethylmercury by weight, in order to not unnecessarily expose the fetus to a known neurotoxin that crosses both the placental and blood brain barriers.
But the primary significance Moyer attributes to the study isn’t that choosing not to get a flu vaccine during pregnancy would be a rational choice to make, but that scientific findings can sometimes “frighten the public”. She cites the view of “Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and co-inventor of a lifesaving rotavirus vaccine”, who argued publicly “that the paper shouldn’t have been published”.
“Dr. Offit says that researchers should handle findings differently when there’s a chance they might frighten the public.”
In other words, any research findings that challenge rather than support public policy should be systematically censored; only research findings that can be interpreted as vindicating public policy should be publicized.
Incidentally, Offit once sat on the CDC’s vaccine advisory committee and voted several times in favor of the rotavirus vaccine while at the same time developing and sharing patent ownership on a rotavirus vaccine for the pharmaceutical giant Merck. Yet, by Moyer’s account, people like him are not the problem!
Moyer then cites the opposing view of Dr. Gregory Poland, editor-in-chief of the journal Vaccine, that it is important for such studies be published.
Then she related her own experience of having been warned several times as a reporter that she would have blood on her hands if she covered the issue the wrong way—that is, if she reported about vaccines in any way, no matter how accurate and truthful, that might lead parents to conclude that strictly following the CDC’s recommendations might not be such a good idea for their child.
“But in the long run,” Moyer inquires, “isn’t stifling scientific inquiry even more dangerous?”
She then quotes one of the authors of the miscarriage study, Dr. Edward Belongia, rightly stating that, “If we get to the point where we don’t want to look anymore because we don’t want to know the answer, then we’re in trouble.”
Moyer then tries to downplay the significance of studies with unwanted findings by claiming that “critical studies generally concern minor issues”.
But she has absolutely no basis for making that generalization. We can see this by looking at her own examples. The question of whether the assumptions underlying the CDC’s influenza vaccine recommendations are actually true, for example, is certainly not a “minor” issue! Nor is the question of whether pregnant women getting a flu shot might cause harm or even death to their developing fetus!
Incidentally, the manufacturer’s package inserts for influenza vaccines warn that “safety and efficacy have not been established in pregnant women”, and a 2014 Cochrane review found that the number of randomized controlled trials assessing the effects of vaccinating pregnant women was zero. Yet, by Moyer’s reasoning, pregnant women should disregard this lack of science and go ahead and get vaccinated anyway!
We’ve already seen how Moyer downplayed the significance of the 2005 NIH study by grossly mischaracterizing the actual nature of the issue. Likewise, it wasn’t just that one 2017 study found an association between the flu shot and miscarriage. It rather confirmed an earlier study by former CDC researcher Gary Goldman, published in 2013, which found that women who were vaccinated for consecutive influenza seasons beginning in 2008-2009—when women received both the seasonal and the pandemic H1N1 flu shot—had a significantly higher risk of fetal loss. As Goldman concluded, “a synergistic fetal toxicity likely resulted from the administration of both the pandemic (A-H1N1) and seasonal influenza vaccines during the 2009/2010 season.”
Nor is Moyers forthcoming about the nature of the association the subsequent CDC study found between vaccination and miscarriage, which was that women who received an inactivated influenza vaccine during the study period, from 2010 to 2012, had twice the risk of having a spontaneous abortion within 28 days of receipt than women who did not receive a flu shot.
Looking just at the 2010-2011 season, vaccinated women had a 3.7 times greater risk of having a spontaneous abortion.
Furthermore, since the 2009 Influenza A(H1N1) pandemic, seasonal influenza vaccines had included a varying pandemic H1N1 (or pH1N1) antigen component, and the researchers additionally found that vaccinated women who had also received a pH1N1-containing influenza vaccine in the prior season had a 7.7 times higher risk of spontaneous abortion.
One can begin to understand how a decision not to undergo vaccination can indeed be made rationally and on a scientifically sound basis.
Moyer concludes that “good science needs to be heard even if some people will twist its meaning. One thing vaccine scientists and vaccine-wary parents have in common is a desire for the safest and most effective vaccines possible — but vaccines can’t be refined if researchers ignore inconvenient data. Moreover, vaccine scientists will earn a lot more public trust, and overcome a lot more unfounded fear, if they choose transparency over censorship.”
This is certainly a sound conclusion. She also correctly identifies the problem of how scientists face pressure not to publish research findings critical of vaccines. However, she incorrectly attributes the fundamental cause of this problem to public policy critics, inclusive of anyone who takes an active role in disseminating such science accurately to the public, despite her own evidence showing that what has really taken science hostage is public vaccine policy.
Ironically, the result is that Moyer, while purporting to object to this perversion within the medical establishment, is only serving to further entrench the problem by misdiagnosing its fundamental cause.
The solution is not for public policy critics to cease their efforts to disseminate information to the public that people are not getting from the government or mainstream media.
The solution is for public health officials and mainstream media commentators like Moyer to cease their efforts to demonize anyone who dares to speak out publicly against government policy and parents who choose not to strictly adhere to the CDC’s childhood vaccination schedule.
Moyer offers some good advice about policymakers and the scientific community being transparent with the public about vaccine safety and effectiveness. It’s too bad she doesn’t follow her own advice, but instead makes such a great effort not to see the institutionalized bias that her own New York Times op-ed so helpfully documents for us.