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Review of Frontline’s The Vaccine War

Posted Apr 28 2010 5:59pm

The Vaccine War has aired. Judging by the responses, one might consider it a success. Pro vaccine groups like Every Child By Two were telling people to watch it. The Autism Science Foundationhighly recommends ” watching it. On the other side, the organizations represented by the Age of Autism blog (Generation Rescue, the National Autism Association, SafeMinds, the Autism Research Institute and TACA) are very upset. Jenny McCarthy has gone to the Huffington Post with her side of the story, as has Dr. Jay Gordon , whose entire interview was cut from the program.


An unofficial (and incomplete) transcript is here
.

That all said, I both appreciated the program and had my fears realized. In this case, my fears were that people would be given a platform to spread misinformation. And it happened. Jenny McCarthy and others made statements that were, in my view, misinformation. But, I appreciated the fact that Frontline took the time to counter much of the misinformation with actual experts discussing real science.

Frontline describes the show as:

In The Vaccine War, FRONTLINE lays bare the science of vaccine safety and examines the increasingly bitter debate between the public health establishment and a formidable populist coalition of parents, celebrities, politicians and activists who are armed with the latest social media toolsincluding Facebook, YouTube and Twitterand are determined to resist pressure from the medical and public health establishments to vaccinate, despite established scientific consensus about vaccine safety.

I think the show accomplished this. There was some cost in terms of allowing Generation Rescue’s misinformation message in TV once again. But, this time, this time they are the problem.

If you watch the introductory 2 minutes of this video, you will get some idea of how the show is presented

Parents, both pro vaccine and not, activists, public health workers and researchers like Dr. Offit telling various sides of the story, with the narrator tying it together.

Narrator: Tonight on Frontline: They’re hailed as medicine’s greatest triumph: conquering smallpox, diphtheria, polio and more. But today, some Americans question if all those vaccines are worth the risk.

The show is in four segments. The titles for these segments should, again, give you an idea of the tone of the show.

1. A visit to Ashland, Oregon. In some American communities like this one, parents are hesitating to vaccinate their children, despite their doctor’s advice.

2. Eroding faith in vaccines. Skeptics target Paul Offit, inventor of the rotavirus vaccine. And many parents are wary of vaccines because they no longer see the diseases.

3. Fearing vaccine risks, especially autism.. Vaccine skeptics like celebrity Jenny McCarthy have organized a community of parents concerned about a vaccine-autism link.

4. The science that launched the movement. A British doctors ‘98 study theorized that the measles vaccine causes autism. Soon vaccine critics began questioning other additives in vaccines.

5. What epidemiological studies reveal. No link is found between autism and the MMR shot or thimerosal. And the British doctor’s ‘98 study is discredited, but critics demand more studies.

6. Vaccines, what’s at stake. The debate goes beyond the medical risks-benefits: it involves parents’ rights to make choices v. the needs of the community.

In the first segment, they interview a pro-vaccine mother in Ashland. She notes that if there is an outbreak, the response may get contentious. It may get ugly.

Beyond the direct human cost, one of my worries: how much blowback will there be to the autism communities? How much blame will be applied and what will it cost?

As part of the introduction, The Vaccine War discusses the story of Desiree Jennings. She was a Washington Redskins cheerleader who claimed dystonia as an adverse reaction to her vaccine. Her story broke out not through the TV news show that covered her story, but through YouTube. Jenny McCarthy is quoted about how Generation Rescue took Ms. Jennings to see Dr. Rashid Buttar and how chelation and HBOT cured her.

What makes the Desiree Jennings story even more interesting is the possibility that the vaccine-injury/dystonia story may not be real. As noted on LeftBrainRightBrain , Ms. Jennings was later followed by cameras from a TV program and shown to be driving and walking normally.

The possibility that Generation Rescue is using the story even though it may not be true was probed by Frontline. Here is a part of an interview from Frontline with one of Generation Rescue’s founders :

[Frontline]Talk about the viral spread of an image over the Internet, like [Redskins cheerleader] Desiree Jennings’ flu shot story, for example.

It’s remarkably powerful what an image or an idea can do in today’s day and age, and for a group of parents who feel completely outmatchedbecause think for a moment about who our enemy is; our enemies are the largest pharmaceutical companies on the planet, making billions of dollars in net profit a yearyou’d think that we could never compete with that. But an idea can transmit itself powerfully and very cheaply for millions to see.

So in the case of Desiree, here you have an image of this beautiful woman who’s been severely disabled that literally tens of millions of people view overnight, and imagine the chilling effect that has on a flu vaccine that she attributes as the cause of her condition. It’s remarkably powerful.

[Frontline] Does it matter whether it’s true or not?

Truth always bears out in the end, so I’m a firm believer in that. Are there moments in time where truth is exaggerated or expanded? Absolutely. But truth bears out in the end. ...

Perhaps I missed it, but it appears to this reader that Frontline’s question was completely dodged. Does it matter whether the Desiree Jennings story is true or not? I think so. But what seems important to Generation Rescue is not the truth of the story, but the fact that it is a gripping narrative that sells their message.

The Vaccine War has a rather large cast, if I may call them that. Parents both pro and anti vaccine, a writer from Ashland who is anti-vaccine, Paul Offit, bioethicist (and polio survivor) Arthur Caplan, Jenny McCarthy, Anthony S. Fauci (immunologist from NIAID), Cynthia Cristofani (pediatric intensivist), Alvaro and Myrian Fontan (a family who almost lost their daughter to whooping cough) and J.B. Handley, Barbara Loe Fisherplus more.

In some ways, “The Vaccine War” takes the same approach that Dr. Offit uses in books like “Autism’s False Prophets”. Let the skeptics make their points, ask their questions, then respond. Sometimes this is quite jarring.It is tough to sit back and listen to someone spread information and wait for the response.

The Vaccine War is well researched. Even though people like Jenny McCarthy got some air time for their ideas, they are quite upset about the Frontline episode.

Perhaps I am the only one who will find this ironic. In response to this episode, one which discusses how groups like Generation Rescue use social networking on the internet to get their message out, they are taking to social networking. Twitter, blogging…

As noted above Jenny McCarthy and Dr. Jay Gordon have taken to the Huffington Post to respond to the show. the Age of Autism is being very critical. They are attempting to “poll mob ” the Frontline website. (humorous asidethey haven’t figured out that the survey doesn’t record their answers. It only shows you how your responses compare to the actual survey.)

If you have friends, family who are wondering about the vaccine/autism “controversy”, this is a good show to refer them to. It gives both sides. It allows people like Jenny McCarthy to give her viewpointand it gives the response.

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