What do we do about politicians and physicians who promote antivaccine misinformation?

Feb 11, 2015

Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

By David Gorski

Given the ongoing (and increasing) measles outbreak linked initially to Disneyland, it’s hard for me not to revisit the topic from time to time. This time around, there are two issues I wish to discuss, one political and one that is a combination of medical and political. After all, it was just one week ago when New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stepped in it by advocating parental choice in vaccines, as if parents don’t already have a choice. He rapidly had to walk it back, and his ill-considered remarks were almost certainly not evidence that he is antivaccine. They are, however, evidence that he doesn’t understand that we do not have “forced vaccination” in this country (we have school vaccine mandates). Parents already have choice in 48 states, given that only two states (Mississippi and West Virginia) do not allow belief-based non-medical exemptions, be they religious exemptions, personal belief-exemptions, or both, to school vaccine mandates. It also came out that in 2009 while running for Governor, Christie met with Louise Kuo Habakus (who is antivaccine) and the NJ Coalition for Vaccine Choice, a very vocal NJ antivaccine coalition whose member organization list reads like a who’s who of the national antivaccine movement and includes Life Health Choices, the antivaccine organization founded by Habakus. He even wrote a letter promising that as governor he would stand with them in “their fight for greater parental involvement in vaccination decisions that affect their children.”

It’s also evidence that vaccine mandates are becoming even more politicized. Indeed, Senator Rand Paul, on the very same day, provided more such evidence when he claimed on a conservative talk radio show that he’s seen children with severe neurological problems after vaccination, the implication being that he believed these children’s problems were linked to vaccination. Later, in a testy exchange with a CNBC reporter, who asked him whether he had really said that he thought vaccines should be voluntary, Paul sarcastically replied, “I guess being for freedom would be unusual.” Later in the exchange, after repeating the same antivaccine talking points that he had related earlier in the day, he said, “The state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.” You get the idea. He, too, ultimately had to back off a bit, famously showing himself getting vaccinated for hepatitis A, but given that Paul has had a long history of making similar comments, this was almost certainly strategic.

What is happening is that refusal to vaccinate is being painted, instead of as a public health issue with potentially dire consequences, as an issue of “freedom.” Rand Paul’s statements are health freedom rhetoric packaged toxically with “parental rights” rhetoric in which children are viewed as the property of their parents and the parental choice always trumps the child’s right to good medical care. It’s the same sort of rhetoric I’ve decried before in the cases of children whose parents refuse chemotherapy, such as the two 11-year-old aboriginal girls in Canada (one of whom has already died) or Jann Bellamy and Harriet Hall have while discussing cases of faith healing and lack of parental accountability. No wonder the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism loves Rand Paul.

Politicians will be politicians, of course. They go where they think there’s support and say whatever message they perceive to be advantageous to them politically. Also, Rand Paul has long been known for saying dumb things about vaccines, things no doctor should be saying. What was more disturbing was that a relatively moderate Republican as nationally prominent as Gov. Christie would think that pandering to the health freedom and antivaccine movements might be good for him politically. On the other hand, the rapidity with which these two were slapped down by the media and prominent Republican politicians rushed to support vaccines was reassuring to me that antivaccine beliefs haven’t become as prevalent as I had perhaps feared.

Of course, politicians spouting antivaccine nonsense can often be dealt with through public opinion and shame. It doesn’t always work (witness how long Dan Burton was in Congress), but they, at least, are public.

Less well known but even more pernicious are antivaccine doctors, such as pediatricians Dr. Jay Gordon and Dr. Bob Sears. If there’s one salutary effect of this outbreak, one silver lining in a dark cloud of measles suffering, it’s that the question of what to do about antivaccine physicians has come to the fore.

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17 comments on “What do we do about politicians and physicians who promote antivaccine misinformation?

  • What do we do about politicians and physicians who promote antivaccine misinformation?

    In England, doctors who act in this disreputable manner are struck off the medical register for serious professional misconduct, and banned.

    .The doctor who first suggested a link between MMR vaccinations and autism is to be struck off the medical register.

    The General Medical Council found Dr Andrew Wakefield guilty of serious professional misconduct over the way he carried out his controversial research.

    It follows a GMC ruling earlier this year that he had acted unethically.

    It also said Dr Wakefield should have disclosed the fact that he had been paid to advise solicitors acting for parents who believed their children had been harmed by the MMR.

    In making the verdict on the sanctions, Dr Surendra Kumar, the panel’s chairman, said Dr Wakefield had “brought the medical profession into disrepute” and his behaviour constituted “multiple separate instances of serious professional misconduct”.

    In total, he was found guilty of more than 30 charges.

    Dr Kumar also explained the reasoning for striking Dr Wakefield off.

    Two of his former colleagues at the Royal Free were also ruled to have broken guidelines.

    Professor John Walker-Smith and Professor Simon Murch both helped Dr Wakefield carry out the research

    Professor Walker-Smith, who is 73 and has been retired for the past 10 years, was found guilty of serious professional misconduct and struck off the register.
    Professor Murch was found not guilty of serious professional misconduct despite there not being ethical approval for the research.

    Having produced a fake report without disclosing he was being paid by solicitors to support legal autism compesation claims, Wakefield is now working in the USA promoting anti-vax – apparently with impunity! – with “free-speech”, as a liars and fraudsters charter, providing him with an income from sales of disinformation!

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  • They do it irresponsibly, almost as a fashion or lifestyle statement. They need to be charged with attempted murder or sued civilly to wake them up to how their choice affects a lot of other people.

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  • The failure to have MMR vaccinations before pregnancy, is illustrated in my earlier comment:-


    It may even be possible to diagnose likely autism cases in very young babies before they need to be vaccinated.


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  • California and other states are considering legislation to eliminate personal belief vaccine exemptions as the current outbreak continues to spread. There are signs that anti-vaxxers are feeling very uncomfortable with the spotlight of responsibility for this outbreak squarely on them. There are some pediatricians and other physicians who have posted signs in their office and sent out letters saying that they will not accept any new patients who are unvaccinated. I think the backlash against anti-vaxxers is growing and will continue to grow – it’s just a shame it had to come at the expense of sick children.

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  • rod-the-farmer Feb 11, 2015 at 3:30 pm

    I know Dr. Wakefield was struck off, but is it true to say ALL UK doctors are ?

    His fraudulent “research” came to light through the peer-review process and the journal, then being followed up by the general medical council (as the professional regulatory body).

    I think the abuses would have to be sufficiently prominent for this sort of action, but medical universities could use also internal academic misconduct procedures which would expose charlatans.

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  • simple. for all infectious conditions for which there is currently no available vaccine (e.g. ebola), anyone who contracts the illness will, instead of being forced by an unfeeling government into quarrantine, should be given the alternative choice to go and live with a medical practicioner who doesn’t believe in vaccines until they’re all better and no longer a threat to the population at large

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  • “I guess being for freedom would be unusual.”

    This is great, Mr. Paul. We agree. Freedom is good. I like my freedom of not being forced into a preventable infectious disease. In the matter of fact, I like the freedom of all people not being forced into it, and I know a way of easily accomplishing that: V-A-C-C-I-N-E-S !

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  • SaganTheCat Feb 12, 2015 at 8:19 am

    simple. for all infectious conditions for which there is currently no available vaccine (e.g. ebola), anyone who contracts the illness will, instead of being forced by an unfeeling government into quarrantine, should be given the alternative choice to go and live with a medical practicioner who doesn’t believe in vaccines until they’re all better and no longer a threat to the population at large

    The pseudo-science nuttery mob have gone further than that!

    Aid workers fighting Ebola in Guinea are being subjected to an average of 10 attacks every month, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) says.

    Last year eight aid workers were hacked to death in Guinea.

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  • Please note that Rand Paul is an optician! In the US opticians can and do call themselves Doctors as do dentists. This lends weight to his medical “advice”, but unless it is vision related should be taken with a pinch of salt!

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  • Unfortunately, Rand Paul IS a medical doctor. He graduated from Duke med school & completed his residency. He’s an ophthalmologist.

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  • With 90% of the population in North America supporting mandatory vaccinations, it should be fairly easy to get rid of stupid politicians, by exposing them for what they are, and letting the electorate know their position on the subject. Hopefully at the next election they will be thrown out of office.

    As for Medical Doctors: they should simply have their licences taken away, thus stopping them from practicing medicine. If they want to perform witchcraft, but all means do, but don’t call it medicine. Similarly, medical schools should take a zero tolerance stance, not allowing students taking an antivax stance to graduate. jcw.

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