A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

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Barbara Loe Fisher

Before smallpox was eradicated with a vaccine, it killed an estimated 500 million people. And just 60 years ago, polio paralyzed 16,000 Americans every year, while rubella caused birth defects and mental retardation in as many as 20,000 newborns. Measles infected 4 million children, killing 3,000 annually, and a bacterium called Haemophilus influenzae type b caused Hib meningitis in more than 15,000 children, leaving many with permanent brain damage. Infant mortality and abbreviated life spans — now regarded as a third world problem — were a first world reality. --Amy Wallace

...immunization can be credited with saving approximately 9 million lives a year worldwide. A further 16 million deaths a year could be prevented if effective vaccines were deployed against all potentially vaccine-preventable diseases.*

Barbara Loe Fisher is one of the co-founders of the National Vaccine Information Center, a clearing house for the anti-vaccination movement. She and others in the anti-vaccination movement were brought together by their common belief, since proven wrong, that vaccines cause autism. Fisher and her group vigorously oppose public health measures that require mandatory vaccinations. One surmises that if Fisher found a group of parents and quacks with Ph.D.s and M.D.s who confirmed her bias that hygiene causes brain disorders in children, she'd rally the troops to ban mandatory washing of hands in restaurants and hospitals. Nothing has contributed more to the general improved health conditions in the modern world than public health measures such as vaccination and those that require sanitation, including cleaning up water, air, and disposing of sewage.

Voluntary vaccination programs sound wonderful to defenders of liberty, but they would be disastrous to public health because they would destroy herd immunity. In fact, immunization rates are so low in some places that these disastrous effects are already taking place. In Japan, for example, when the vaccination rate for pertussis dropped 70% from 1974 to 1976, there was a corresponding increase in pertussis. In 1974 there were 393 cases of pertussis and no deaths. In 1976, there were more than 13,000 cases and 41 deaths.* There were an estimated 30 to 40 million cases of measles in 2000, causing some 777,000 deaths.* "Health officials say aggressive efforts to vaccinate young children against measles have resulted in a 74 percent global decline in the number of deaths due to the illness [between 2000 and 2007]. Experts say the biggest decline, 90 percent, occurred in the Eastern Mediterranean region."* In England and Wales, measles cases increased 36% in 2008.* Measles cases more than doubled from the year before during the first half of 2008 in the United States.*

Here is what Barbara Loe Fisher, who calls herself an "autism mom," wrote on her blog after Jenny McCarthy appeared on Oprah's show in 2007 as a "warrior mom" in the fight against vaccines as the cause of autism:

When she was not yet a superstar or even broadcasting nationally, in early 1985 a friend gave Oprah a copy of DPT: A Shot in the Dark [co-authored by Fisher], which was the first report of an association between autism and vaccination. "We're waiting until it comes out in paperback," a producer told her friend. The paperback version was published in 1986 but, by then, Oprah had starred in "The Color Purple," her show had been nationally syndicated and the vaccine safety debate had become a heated controversy. Over the last two decades, many parents of vaccine injured children have written letters to Oprah in hopes that she would do a show about vaccine risks.*

Yes, and over those past two decades numerous scientific studies have been published on the issue and the evidence has failed to support the notion that vaccines are a significant risk factor for autism. But it doesn't matter to Barbara Loe Fisher,  Jenny McCarthy, or Oprah Winfrey. Once their guts told them vaccines are a problem, their brains were guided by confirmation bias. They ignored or brushed off the scientific evidence and found "experts" who agreed with them. Mostly, however, they collected anecdotes of cases which do more to exemplify the post hoc fallacy than anything else. The anecdote that seems to have driven Fisher to launch and maintain for several decades her pseudoscientific crusade involves her son Chris. She claims that Chris "suffered a convulsion, collapse/shock, and brain inflammation within hours of his fourth DPT shot" that has left him with serious learning disabilities.* That was in 1980 when Chris was two-and-a-half years old.

Fisher has certainly had ample time to correct her original error, for which her only evidence was the fact that her son's symptoms appeared hours after his fourth DPT shot. Instead, she has sought to confirm her bias regarding vaccines in the face of a growing mountain of evidence that she's wrong.

Despite her selective approach to evidence, Fisher has been appointed to several important national health committees and has been a speaker at many conferences.* One admirer is media celebrity and anti-vaxxer Bill Maher, who says he finds Fisher "extremely credible" and that she "speaks eloquently." I've never heard her speak, but she must be pretty good to maintain such a large following. I don't find her credible at all, however. I do find her intelligent and can see why many people find her one-sided and incomplete arguments persuasive. She's very good at combining accurate information with misleading claims to give the impression that the risk of serious negative effects from vaccines is significantly greater than the risk of serious ill effects from the diseases they protect against. For a more accurate and complete picture of these risks I recommend the website Science-Based Medicine. As an antidote to the rhetoric posted by Barbara Loe Fisher on vaccines, I recommend the reader listen to a special podcast on vaccines hosted by The Skeptic's Guide to the Universe.

See also Antivaxxer Plague, Andrew Wakefield, the anti-vaccination movement, Russell Blaylock, detoxification therapies, Jay Gordon, Rauni Kilde, Joseph Mercola, supplements, and Defending Falsehoods.

further reading

reader comments

Mnookin, Seth. 2011. The Panic Virus: A True Story of Medicine, Science, and Fear. Simon & Shuster.

Offit, Paul. 2008. Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. Columbia University Press.

Offit, Paul. 2010. Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. Basic Books.

Wallace, Amy. (2009). An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All, Wired. To hear his enemies talk, you might think Paul Offit is the most hated man in America. A pediatrician in Philadelphia, he is the coinventor of a rotavirus vaccine that could save tens of thousands of lives every year. Yet environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. slams Offit as a “biostitute” who whores for the pharmaceutical industry. Actor Jim Carrey calls him a profiteer and distills the doctor’s attitude toward childhood vaccination down to this chilling mantra: “Grab ‘em and stab ‘em.” Recently, Carrey and his girlfriend, Jenny McCarthy, went on CNN’s Larry King Live and singled out Offit’s vaccine, RotaTeq, as one of many unnecessary vaccines, all administered, they said, for just one reason: “Greed.”

Journalists sink in The Atlantic article on vaccines blog by revere (the article in question is "Does the Vaccine Matter?" by Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, November 2009)

Vaccine Safety Information for Parents

Why should infants and young children be vaccinated?

National Network for Immunization Information

My posts on autism and thimerosal in vaccines

Experts dispel detox myths: "One group gave up processed food, soft drinks, alcohol, salt, sugar, caffeine, wheat, red meat and dairy, and the others followed their normal diet. After seven days, toxicologists found no difference in their liver and kidney functions or vitamin levels."

The Toxic Myth About Vaccines by David Gorski

An Open Letter to Bill Maher on Vaccinations by Michael Shermer Shermer lectures Maher on germ theory

Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having by Bill Maher Maher responds that he read Microbe Hunters when he was eight

Some Muddled Thinking from Bill Maher by Stephen Novella Novella deconstructs Maher's "rambling defensive diatribe in which he simultaneously protests the criticism pointed his way while repeating and amplifying the pseudoscientific nonsense that garnered criticism in the first place....the criticism will continue – not to shut him up, but to do damage control. Maher is contributing to the public misunderstanding of science in perhaps the most important area – medicine."

news

"Another Libel Suit – This Time Against Paul Offit" by Steven Novella Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, and Wired Magazine have been sued for libel by Barbara Loe Fisher [update: 11 Mar 2010. The suit has been dismissed. Even prior to the suit, Wallace noted that she had never before received such hateful letters and e-mails on any other topic in her 25 years of writing professionally. Much of the opposing correspondence made lewd sexual comments about Ms. Wallace rather than engage in a debate about the content of her article.]

"Anti-vaccination liar sues" by Peter Bowditch When your argument is poor or backed by no science or truth, a useful way of responding to criticism is to attempt to stifle the criticism. It is axiomatic that the arguments put forward by anti-vaccination liars are poor and unscientific, so it comes as no surprise to find that Barbara Loe Fisher of the deceptively-named National Vaccination Information Center should respond to criticism of her and her child-endangering activities by calling in the lawyers.

"Suppression of speech through legal intimidation, anti-vaccine edition: Barbara Loe Fisher sues Dr. Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, and Condé Nast for libel" by Orac In general, one of the biggest differences between those defending science-based medicine and those defending pseudoscience, quackery, and anti-science is that science inculcates in its adherents a culture of free and open debate. In marked contrast, those advocating pseudoscience tend to cultivate cultures of the echo chamber.

"Paul Offit, Amy Wallace, and Conde Nast being sued by anti-vaccinationist" by Abel Pharmboy The lawsuit is an attempt to silence or intimidate those who speak out against individuals and organizations that threaten public health. When scientific facts accumulate that refute their views, the response is to file frivolous legal action.

Last updated 13-Jan-2014

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