To vaccinate, or not to vaccinate... is that the question?

Monday, February 23, 2009 at 10:22 AM Bookmark and Share
A friend of mine posted a link to this video today, which I thought deserved some critical commentary. Before I get into it, click below to watch the clip. Even better click here to watch it in another window - I'm sure you'll want to go back and forth and review some of the video segments as you read on.

Lets start with Katie Couric's opening line in the piece, the rest of which is done by CBS's Sharyl Attkisson (whose strengths are more in matters of money and not medicine):
For years now parents have wondered if vaccines are linked to conditions like autism and ADD. Government officials and some scientists say there is no connection, and they are often backed by independent experts. But just how independent are they?
The first sentence implies those rightfully concerned parents haven't found any good answers, which is hardly the case. Plenty of answers can be found through one's local medical community, on the web at places like the National Network for Immunization Information, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and so on. The claim that vaccinations cause autism and ADD have been investigated repeatedly by the scientific community and all the evidence suggests that vaccination won't give someone autism, ADD or the like - which is good news!

Taking those findings more skeptically, they suggest that even if vaccines were capable of causing autism or ADD, the odds of it happening to any particular individual are vanishingly small. That is, you are much more likely to be killed in some kind of accident in the months after getting the shots - and much less likely to develop autism or ADD.

The second part of this opening line is the real reason this clip caught my attention. The rather harmless sounding sentence calls into question the validity of all the work that has been done to understand the safety and risks associated with vaccines - by literally thousands of skilled people trained in using state of the art tools and methods to answer these kinds of questions - all cast into doubt by whether or not some organizations and individuals truly making independent claims from what the drug companies might say.

To give you a more clearly dubious yet analogous statement, this is like saying that if you walked into a car dealership - having done your homework and concluded that a Honda Civic was the perfect car for you - you should suddenly become overwhelmed with doubt about your decision upon hearing the clearly biased salesmen tell you to go with the Civic. Whether or not some (in this case, 3) individuals and organizations have a bias in favor of an otherwise good idea does not invalidate all of the other evidence supporting the notion that it really is a good idea!

The clip then goes on to point out financial ties between drug companies and three entities that one would expect to be "independent" from the likes of Merck and Wyeth: The American Academy of Pediatrics, Every Child by Two, and outspoken pediatrician Dr. Paul Offit, M.D.

I must mention that Dr. Offit would otherwise be someone concerned parents would absolutely adore, were they made aware of his dedication to preventing childhood diseases, his work in doing just that, and his books to help inform the public on these matters. Instead, Sharyl Attkisson further vilifies him with remarks like "he has gone so far to say that babies can theoretically tolerate '... 10,000 vaccines at once.' " (This statement is a testament to the amazing capacity of the human immune system to fend of pathogens, by the way - not some expressed desire make pincushins of infants!)

So what of their examples? Questionable or not, the consequences of any bias are blown way out of proportion here - although clearly some of these associations are to be frowned upon. AAP received $342K from Wyeth ("for a community grant program"), $433K from Merck (the same year their HPV vaccine was introduced), and unnamed funds from "another top donor, sanofi aventis." Each Child by 2 admits taking money, claiming no conflict of interest. However, their former treasurers - and the word "former" was absent from the script, but shows up in the visuals - included an official from Wyeth and one "paid advisor to big pharmaceutical clients" (which might sound bad, but without knowing the nature of the advising its hard to pass a quick judgment).

We could go on and on, for example the statement that
Today's immunization schedule calls for kids to get 55 doses of vaccines by age 6. Ideally it makes for a healthier society.
"Ideally?" How about "clearly" or maybe "demonstrably"? Immunizations as part of overall improved health care do make for a healthier society than without them. If you need some evidence of this fact, consider the last time someone in your neighborhood died from or became paralyzed by polio. Even better evidence is readily available if you look for it, such as in this article, for example.

Overall, I hope you can see how a little bit of critical thought on this piece turns up a lot of other issues that are probably more worthwhile to think about than how much money Merck gave the APP for a community grant program. Before you go, watch the piece again and let me know what you think!

Finally, I'll end with a teaser for an upcoming post where I'll come back to this thread and discuss a few other question from this clip. These come from the way that Dr. Paul Offit was dubbed a "vaccine industry insider" (the implication here is of course, not positive) because his Merck-funded position at Children's Hospital, and the nature of his work in trying to prevent childhood diseases.

It begs the question: What role should industrial/commercial/any scientists play in promoting products or information that by all measures will benefit society (in this case, that save lives)? When does "independent" trump "expert"?


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