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Changing Media Perception: “Anti-Vaxxers Are [Fill in the Blank]”

 

Recent events have prompted some startlingly contradictory emotions in me. On the one hand, a day I’ve long been dreading appears to have finally arrived, and on the other hand, a day I have awaiting with eager anticipation may also have arrived – and ironically both are due to the pharmaceutical public relations machine.

The day I’ve been dreading is the day that PR machine finally figured out that whenever they “go negative” with people who question either the safety of one vaccine, all vaccines, or the cumulative effect of the CDC recommended schedule as a whole, they lose by it.

In recent years, we’ve seen myriad mainstream media pieces implying – or stating outright – that “anti-vaxxers” (click here for a working definition of who is included) are any or all of stupid, anti-science, dangerous, selfish, elitist, and crazy baby killers. They have also consistently stated or implied that those of us who refuse one or more vaccines for ourselves or our children make these important health decisions with long-term ramifications based upon a single case series involving 12 children, published in 1998 and later withdrawn, that mentioned one possible negative outcome of one vaccine and/or the testimony of a Playboy bunny. They make these assertions despite the fact that it’s never been true, and we have been telling them so all along.

It turns out, however, that the general public isn’t quite as stupid as pharmaceutical execs and their public relations machine – involving classic PR press releases spoon-fed to credulous journalists, astroturf (meaning faked “grass roots”) websites, self-professed “science” bloggers, and an army of gleeful, self-professed “trolls” – would like to believe. (If you want some eye-opening insight into the sort of “tricks” employed by these “trolls,” click here.)

 

Many people who stand on the sidelines of the vaccine debate know someone who has questioned the wisdom of giving all newborns (who are not capable of producing mature antibodies in the first place) a vaccine for a disease transmitted primarily through sexual activity and dirty needles (hepatitis B) that fewer than 1 in 50,000 young children per year would have been exposed to even before the vaccine was recommended for that age range.  Or they know someone who questions the wisdom of injecting a mercury-laden flu vaccine into an infant, when the Cochrane Collaboration has made it clear that there is no evidence that flu shots are effective at all in children under two. Or someone who wonders whether letting their teenager assume the risk of developing overwhelming autoimmune illness in order to cut the risk of death by cervical cancer (30-40 years away on average) by 0.5% is a tradeoff worth making.

Or like so many of us, they know someone whose child was hitting all their milestones on time and got a round of vaccines at 18 months or two years of age that sent them to the emergency room – emitting an eerie high-pitched scream that would break the heart of a stone-cold serial killer and arching their back in an unnatural way  –  leading to the sudden or gradual loss of all the child’s previously acquired skills and ending with a diagnosis of “autism” – along with a host of co-occurring conditions which might include serious gastrointestinal disease, seizure disorders, apraxia, sensory processing disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, life-threatening allergies, and/or autoimmune conditions.

So many people know someone in one or more of these categories – all of which are called “anti-vaccine” by the pharmaceutical PR machine and painted with the same brush – that recent statistics show that 40% of U.S. parents of young children have delayed or denied at least one vaccine on the CDC recommended schedule. And nearly one-third of parents of young children believe that vaccines cause autism. These parents know that their friends and family members are not stupid, nor do they deny the value of honest science (in fact, many can give you a host of links to studies and articles that should shake anyone’s faith in the blanket assurances of safety spouted by the CDC), and they are certainly not killers. Many of the parents in the last category – those with children injured by vaccines – are in fact so compassionate and unselfish that they repeatedly tell their stories on public forums, despite the inevitable character assassination they know will follow, in the hopes that by sharing what they have learned they can spare at least one child, one family, from going through the same hell that they themselves have been through.

 

The PR strategy has traditionally been to shut down any conversation on vaccines byviciously mocking anyone who dared bring up serious issues with the safety of one or more vaccines or the way we are currently administering them. That strategy has been employed successfully to shut down many a conversation on social media, leading the people behind the strategy to believe it was the right way to go. It has also been successful in heating up the rhetoric, pitting particularly fearful parents against vaccine choice advocates, and monopolizing the mainstream media message. But this is the age of the Internet, and more and more people are becoming aware of how much the mainstream media message is shaped, if not co-opted entirely, by the industries providing their budgets in the form of advertising dollars. More and more people are becoming disillusioned by the quality of the information coming from mainstream media outlets and are looking elsewhere to find what is not being shown on television. Having watched these conversations for approximately 15 years now, I’ve noticed the rhetoric heating up, but I’ve also noticed that every single time someone is vicious to an earnest, well-meaning parent on a public forum – especially when the parent keeps their cool and stays completely reasonable, admittedly a difficult task under the circumstances – another parent begins to question.

We at TMR have known for a long time now that the more vicious the attacks, the moreground we gain by merely participating in the conversation. That’s why we advise people to ignore the attacks to the best of their ability and just place as many nuggets of unassailable information as they can for the approximately 40% of parents who may be still “on the fence” about vaccines and may be seeing the information for the first time. The pharmaceutical companies have a lot of money to pay their expensive PR teams, but it’s clear, despite the David-and-Goliath nature of the battle, that we are winning. Recently, PR firms have confirmed what we have known for a long time. Despite sharply increasing vitriol, the ranks of people with the audacity to question what is injected into their infants are growing. In fact, the vitriol itself helps to swell our ranks. In the words of “risk communication expert” David Ropiek, “There are millions of people who are ambivalent to some degree. When they hear the people being picked on defend their views, that has the real prospect of turning some of those people against vaccines.”

I find Ropiek’s statement fascinating. I have no doubt whatsoever that he is correct about each conversation’s potential to “turn some of those people against vaccines” because I have watched it happen – repeatedly. But I would characterize it differently. He claims that the vitriol makes us “defensive” and it is our defensiveness that is so persuasive in turning people. On this score, I think he is wrong. Dead wrong. Think about how you feel when someone gets defensive. Do you find their arguments convincing? Are you generally thinking, Wow, she must be right? Not me. I’m usually thinking, Poor sap, so blinded by the need to be right that he can’t see straight! So what is it about this topic that makes people “defending their views” so persuasive? I submit that the reason we gain ground when we are viciously attacked is because much of the time we don’t get defensive. We simply provide the information we wish we had known when making important health decisions for our families. In other words, each attack provides another opportunity for us to exhibit tremendous “grace under pressure” and provide solid information for those who might otherwise never see it. And we are using those opportunities to greater and greater advantage.

We enjoyed an extended period of time where the pharmaceutical companies and their PR hacks just didn’t understand this. It probably peaked early last year with the ridiculous over-hyping of a measles outbreak at Disneyland that eventually led to 159 cases of measles, the majority of which were in adults who had been previously vaccinated for measles. Despite the deliberate hysteria and manufactured outrage spoon-fed to the media, the “anti-vaccination” conversation shifted quickly from defensiveness and “coalesced around personal liberty or the right of parents to choose what is put into their children,” and we gained ground again. Then the pharmaceutical companies’ long-term strategy was revealed as bill after bill was introduced in state legislatures all over the country shortly thereafter, using the supposed measles public health crisis as justification to repeal any personal belief exemptions to the practice of vaccination. Despite the “risk communication expert’s” knowing that attacking parents for not vaccinating doesn’t help his case, Ropeik couldn’t help but give away the true agenda behind the bullying tactics when he said, “The fact that these parents are being so vilified will make it easier for states and cities to make it harder to opt out.”

 

What has been the result of this unprecedented wave of punitive legislation? It hasn’t been any more successful overall than previous hardball campaigns. The most important outcome has been to force opposition groups in virtually every state to mobilize and organize to a level that many didn’t think possible. While vaccine choice activists were ultimately defeated in California, their opposition efforts were on a scale that has been unprecedented in California politics. In the words of California Assemblywoman, Shannon Grove, “When was the last time you saw so many different people [approximately 750 people, many with their children] from so many walks of life across political persuasions that came to this Capitol to protest? We have awoken a sleeping giant.” In the end, SB277’s passage could only be brought about by some very shady procedural anomalies.

Personal or religious belief exemption removal initiatives were defeated in the states ofWashington, Oregon, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maine, and Texas, among others. Illinoispassed a greatly watered-down version of the originally proposed law, requiring religious exemptions to be signed by medical doctors – a ridiculous measure that was defeated in several other states. Obviously, your doctor has nothing to do with your religious beliefs, but the exemption seeker has to prove that they allowed someone in a medical field to lecture them about the dangers of so-called vaccine-preventable diseases. Other legislation, like the proposed repeal of the religious exemption in New York, is stalled. New York’s bill has no co-sponsors and is unlikely to pass, given that the Senate is controlled by Democrats and the House by Republicans. It tends to be hard to get bipartisan support for unconstitutional measures restricting religious freedom.

Excuse me while I wander off course a moment. I think it’s important to note that the only legislatures that have passed vaccine-exemption-removal measures largely intact are California and Vermont, the legislatures of which are largely controlled by Democrats. As someone who has voted almost exclusively Democrat for my entire adult life, I find that fact more than a little disturbing. And I am by no means alone. According to the Democratic party line, it’s supposed to be the Republicans who are beholden to corporate interests, isn’t it? Why then is state Senator Pan of California, a Democrat, taking orders from a pharmaceutical company lobbyist? The truth is that there are few politicians of any stripe who can be elected without powerful industrial ties. This is why I have been banging the drum of campaign finance reform for at least the last 10 years. If we had risen up then and insisted, as a people, that we fundamentally alter the way political campaigns are financed – removing big-money corporate donors from the equation – we would not be in this position today. Instead, we got the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, making it all much, much worse. Campaign finance reform is the number one most important issue we can lobby for, whether we vote Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, or Green Party, if we wish to have public servants – that’s what politicians are supposed to be – who truly represent the people of the United States. And, guess what? Nobody’s going to volunteer to dismantle the current system of campaign finance. Nothing will happen, if we don’t make it happen. *steps back down off soapbox*
So, despite the biggest and nerviest attempted land grab since Britain took over India in the mid-nineteenth century, the folks who want to make sure you have as many vaccines pumped into you as humanly possible, no matter what effect they have on your overall health, are no further along than they were last year. They might even, perhaps, be said to have lost considerable ground, given that their opposition is far more organized and mobilized than it has ever been before, and the measles “public health crisis” – supposedly due to vaccine deniers, despite the fact that a majority of cases were in previously vaccinated adults – has completely and utterly fizzled out. In fact, as of March 16, ten weeks into 2016, there were a total of THREE reported cases of measles when the five-year weeklyaverage is four cases, meaning we’re running at approximately 37 cases below the average cumulative total of measles cases at this time of year.

So, not only were “anti-vaxxers” not to blame for last year’s somewhat ordinary measles statistics, but this year they’re not even able to drum up the usual number of cases – which, by the way, is probably an artificially low estimate for this time of year given that it is averaged across the year.According to the CDC, “measles disease occurs primarily in late winter and spring.” Those three cases account for approximately half of the period when most measles cases are seen. In other words, it looks like this year we may be so far below the usual number of cases that 2016 could very well produce a record low number of measles cases to date. Of course, that shouldn’t be too surprising, since it’s known that measles cases run on a 5-7 year cycle in highly vaccinated populations. Oh, you didn’t know that? Isn’t that interesting? The PR machine certainly did.

It took a while, but the PR machine has finally taken note of the phenomenon I’ve been discussing. Beginning February of 2015 but not really gathering momentum till mid-year, “anti-vaxxer” media articles have been appearing with a decidedly toned-down, if still extremely condescending, attitude – deliberately soft-peddling the previously harsh criticism leveled at those who choose not to vaccinate: February 2015, Maggie Fox at NBC News admonished, “Don’t Call Them Dumb: Experts on Fighting the Anti-Vaccine Movement”; LA Weekly asked in July, “Is There a Kinder, Gentler Way to Get Anti-Vaxxers to See the Light?” (see what I mean about the condescension?); The Atlanticdeclared in February of this year that “Anti-Vaxxers Aren’t Stupid,” in sharp contrast to their long history of “anti-vax” shaming; and The Immunization Partnership, also in February, in their “How to Respond to Inaccurate Posts About Vaccines on Social Media” advised finding common ground, being respectful, and relying on storytelling. Some people, of course, have yet to get the memo with regard to this shift in strategy. There is still plenty of vitriol to be found.

Lorrin Kain and her mother Karen

Speaking of storytelling, this isn’t the first time that the vaccine PR machine tried to bring about a course correction of sorts. It was about 2013 when they first realized they were losing the PR battle. At that point, they decided that our success in influencing attitudes and behavior was “success built onbetter storytelling” as the website Voices for Vaccines puts it. Personally, it chills my blood to see parents pouring their hearts out week after week in the hopes of sparing others their heartache dismissed as “good storytellers.” And I find it even more repellant that what happened to children likeLorrin Kain amounts to nothing but a “good story” to these people. Voices for Vaccines, a supposedly parent-led non-profit with extremely strong vaccine industry ties, makes no bones about being set up specifically to counter our oh-so-fabulous storytelling skills, because they know “as parents” that often the most influential information is “the story shared between parents.” You may have noticed that blogs purporting to be from “anti-vaxxers” who changed their minds began appearing in 2014. These blogs may have convinced some people with little familiarity with the issues, but those of us deep inside the so-called “anti-vaccination movement” (a term they made up, by the way) are more than a little amused at the obvious and clumsy attempts at “better storytelling.”

But keep an eye out for an increase in “storytelling” coming from the PR machine. A recent ad emailed out by Megan Media, which “specializes in creating and implementing custom content and influencer marketing campaigns across mobile, tablet and desktop” seeks  mothers with children two and under “who want to raise awareness around childhood vaccination” for a paid blogging campaign by “passionate influencers” beginning April 11th. Is it coincidence that April happens to be “autism awareness month”? Hardly. Somehow I don’t think they’d be interested in paying me to “raise awareness around childhood vaccination.” Megan Media is a PR company. It’s not clear whether they are ultimately being paid by the U.S. government or by the pharmaceutical companies themselves. I’m not sure there is a whole lot of difference, but it’s at least slightly less galling if my tax dollars are not going toward this crap. In any event, it is a sure bet that none of the “mommy blogs” produced in this astroturf campaign will be containing conflict-of-interest disclosures.

 

My intent in writing this blog was just to show that what you see in the media is carefully crafted PR bullshit. The bullshit may change, but it is still bullshit designed to get people to shut down their critical thinking skills. Resist the bullshit in all its forms. Don’t let corporate-sponsored media shape your views. Talk to people who have questions about vaccines. Find out what their concerns are. They are legitimate, and they are myriad. And they will never be found in a mainstream media piece as long as pharmaceutical companies are paying the bills.

 

So much for the day I dreaded. What about the day I’ve been eagerly anticipating? While I was preparing this blog, The Tribeca Film Festival (TFF) in New York City, an important festival on the independent film circuit – not quite on the level of Cannes or Sundance yet, but rising in prominence – announced that it would be hosting a film entitled Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe. Vaxxed is a documentary about the information revealed by CDC epidemiologist William Thompson with respect to a study he was involved with was published in 2004. (To watch the trailer for the film, click here.) Thompson told Brian Hooker, PhD, exactly where to look to find data that directly correlated the MMR vaccine with higher autism rates, particularly with regard to “isolated autism” (a term they made up term that encompasses what is more commonly known as “regressive autism”) and African-American boys. The AA boys in the study who had had the MMR “on time” had autism at 3.4 times the rate of the AA boys who had the shot after the age of five. Thompson and his co-authors deviated from their initial study design, pulled the incriminating data, and literally (and by “literally” I do not mean “figuratively”) threw it away. Thompson, aware that this was at least unethical and probably illegal, retained copies of the data and information that he recently passed on to Representative William Posey of Florida. This study has been repeatedly and cynically pointed to in the media as “proof” that “vaccines don’t cause autism.” It has also been used as justification for abandoning any investigation into the vaccine/autism link, when it should have been impetus for far more study on the subject.

 

The PR machine has so far successfully shut down serious mainstream inquiry into the facts of this betrayal of public trust by the CDC, but we knew it couldn’t continue to do so for long. In today’s era of instant communication, it is getting harder and harder to continue to suppress long-term injustices. The TFF’s announcement took the vaccine PR machine by surprise and they went swiftly and hysterically into action, trying to get the festival to back out. In light of Robert DeNiro’s eminently reasonable explanation for why he wants the film to be viewed at the festival – as the father of a child with autism he feels it is a conversation worth having – it seems that the day when the public at large will become aware of just how little clothing the emperor is wearing may finally be at hand.

And the very best part is that it will be the vaccine PR machine itself that makes it happen! This film is getting massive amounts of media attention, in large part due to the PR machine’s obviously over-the-top attempts at censorship. There is no way that the filmmakers could have afforded the kind of budget required for that kind of PR buzz themselves.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to see what happens next.

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