Beyond Vaccine Exceptionalism
David Robert Grimes recently had the unenviable task of facing off against Andrew Wakefield on Irish radio. Dr. Grimes is a physicist who also functions as an advocate for science in the public realm. I very much respect his work.
Wakefield, on the other hand, is infamous for having falsely claimed that vaccines cause autism. (They don’t.) Investigative journalist Brian Deer showed Wakefield committed fraud in production of his dangerous claims, and Wakefield subsequently had his medical license revoked. But Wakefield is still at it.
My book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, includes the story of one of Wakefield’s supporters who also made false accusations about vaccines causing disease, so Wakefield’s doings very much remain an interest of mine. After his heavily-edited face off with Wakefield, Dr. Grimes and I got into a conversation about what one should do in such circumstances. Do you turn down the interview so as not to legitimize someone like Wakefield, or let him go unchallenged?
It’s a tough choice I’ve faced myself. There’s no easy answer, but I certainly respect what Dr. Grimes tried to do and I can very much relate to his visible frustration at Wakefield being given air time. (You can hear what aired here, by jumping to the 11-minute mark.)
That said, I do think it is important that we try to do a better job understanding why so many people are susceptible to false claims about vaccines, including conspiracy theories centered on alleged greed.
Many ordinary citizens and patients know—and are right to think about—the fact that vaccines are pushed in and by a medical industrial complex that is, particularly in the United States, rife with financial conflicts of interest, overtreatment, and iatrogenic harm from practices adopted without sufficient evidence.
Vaccines are produced and marketed by the same pharmaceutical companies that have been found, again and again, to engage in unethical and also illegal practices in pursuit of profits. And the fact is that many leaders in medicine, if not also in public health, have had deeply problematic relationships with big pharma; even the New England Journal of Medicine’s editors have lately been telling people to stop worrying their pretty little heads about conflict of interest disclosures and data transparency.
Vaccine exceptionalism—the attitude among many science and public health advocates, that approved and recommended vaccines are never to be questioned or doubted—is historically and politically naïve. Vaccine exceptionalism also ultimately feeds anti-vaccine campaigns by contributing to the sense among vaccine-worried parents that the “pro-vaccine” campaign isn’t really thoughtful or scientific.
I’ve written some about this in an article for New Statesman, so I’ll try to just recap here my position:
I care very much about vaccine public health programs and creating herd immunity for dangerous diseases. That’s why I cringe when I look at how the HPV and chickenpox vaccines came to be mandated in various states in the U.S.—namely through the purchase by pharma of Republican and Democratic politicians. That’s why I object to “ethicists” like Art Caplan taking money from vaccine makers and not revealing those payments while publishing essays arguing “it’s unethical not to be vaccinated” in the medical literature and the mainstream press. I really hate that our Centers for Disease Control, which set out vaccine public health policy, have a Foundation that explicitly takes money from vaccine makers, calling them “our partners.”
I wish none of this would happen, and that people in the public had every reason to feel they could completely trust that no one weighing in on vaccines had a financial interest to be “pro” or “anti.”
It’s time to recognize our responsibility to public health by recognizing that Wakefield’s side is not the only one to have effectively unmanaged and undisclosed financial conflicts of interest. Many of the people who are suspicious of vaccines, especially in the U.S., are not stupid. They know about how they and their loved ones have been screwed over by the medical industrial system that insists they need so many ineffective and unsafe drugs and screenings that do not actually help anyone but the profiteers in industry and pseudo-nonprofits, like our “non-profit” hospitals and some well-known “non-profit” cancer-fight organizations.
If we don't understand Wakefield as a symptom of legitimate suspicion among patients and parents, we will keep giving him fertile ground. It’s time we do something not only about Wakefield, but about the system of medical “science” that is causing the suspicion perpetuating his lies.
See my follow-up post providing a list for reporters of physicians, medical ethicists, etc. who can speak on vaccines and who have not taken funding from the vaccine industry.