Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Vaccine Meeting

Well well well. So last night, my wife and I went to the vaccine meeting I mention in another post. Here is the blurb for the meeting (with identifying info redacted because I don't want to pick on these people too much..):

Dear Friends,
**** Health Care will be hosting a discussion on Vaccines. The talk will be led by local Chiropractor **** *****, who specializes in Pregnancy and Pediatrics. We know it can be overwhelming with all the anti-
vaccine and pro-vaccine information out there. We will discuss vaccine safety, your options, state laws and more. We hope you can join us!
When: Tuesday June 16th at 6:30pm

Now, the mention of being "overwhelm[ed]" by both "pro-"
and "anti-" information almost made me think this was going to be, if not balanced, at least somewhat of an equal time style discussion, a la Bob Sears position on vaccines. Of course, the fact that it was being led by a Chiropractor did not bode well... and then I found out that the woman at whose house it was being held makes herbal "potions", so uh... yeah, I pretty much knew this was going to be altie central. Deep into the belly of the beast...

My wife wanted to go because a few moms from her playgroup were going to be there, and two of them were still very much undecided when it comes to vaccines. She hoped I could bring some balance to the discussion, and maybe help them make a better choice. Also, my wife thought she might learn some more info she hadn't heard before. You never know, right?

I really, really, really didn't want to go. I knew my voice wasn't wanted there. I knew they would bring up some things I knew to be false, but couldn't refute -- denialists are bounded only by their limitless imagination, so no matter how well prepared you are, they can always just make something up, and then you have to go off and spend time debunking it. Also, I have a very hard time containing my temper when people say things that are flat-out wrong...

But my wife didn't want to be there all by herself, and she had already promised the other moms from her playgroup that she would go, so off we went...

We arrived with our three-month-old son, just as they were starting. A car parked outside bore a bumper sticker that said "" (bah-dump!). A book laid out on a table had a picture of a baby with dozens of needles stuck in him. This did not bode well...

They had just begun going around in a circle and having everyone introduce themselves and why they were there. It didn't take long before it became clear that this was going to be a circle-jerk of epic proportions. Sure, scattered here and there were a few new parents who said they had not made up their minds and that they were just trying to get as much information as possible. But the vast majority clearly already had a strong opinion. There was the guy from England who claimed that he knew a kid growing up who had gotten autism from a vaccine. There was the mother of three whose first two kids had gotten fully vaccinated, and the third had had a reaction to the DTaP vaccine and she basically freaked out and decided all vaccines were evil -- and many other similar stories.

Then there was the couple hosting the meeting, who, get this, thought there was no contradiction between the following two statements: "We don't want to try to convince anyone of anything, we want everyone to make up their own minds with all of the information" and "My kids will get vaccinated over my dead body!" Ummm.... Sorry, but when you make inflammatory statements like the latter, you are trying to convince people. Consider:

Roommate #1: "Hey, can I have some of that pizza?"
Roommate #2: "Dude, that pizza has been sitting out on the counter for a week. There's no way I would eat that shit, that's disgusting."
Roommate #1: "So you're saying I shouldn't eat it?"
Roommate #2: "Oh, not at all! I think you should consider all the facts and make up your own mind whether or not to eat the pizza. We all have a choice!"

Yeah, um.... no.

My wife also got in a good subtle dig at the hosts when they told about how important it was to tell schools that you have a religious objection if you want to get a vaccine exemption. She asked, "So, do you actually have a religious belief against vaccines?" The woman had an answer, but you know, it's good to point out that for the vast majority of folks this religious exemption thing is a lie.

The final story, one that was both heartbreaking and infurating, was by an older woman whose daughter had died of cancer... and she somehow came to blame this on vaccination (if I recall, she was influenced by the writings of paleontologist-turned-vaccine-denialist "Dr." Viera Scheibner). I didn't even know how to react to that -- cancer caused by vaccines?? That's an entirely new one on me. Anyway, this woman ended up participating quite heavily, and it saddens me to say that her pain and her convictions are causing her to basically just make stuff up... More about that later. One story that stuck with me was when she told about doctors telling her they could not discuss the issue with her because her "passion" was getting in the way, which she characterized thusly: "They weren't really saying I was passionate, they were just upset because I had too much information." I wrote that down, and you'll see why soon...

I tipped my hand early by pointing out that the VAERS database includes all adverse events occurring shortly after vaccination, rather than just ones that have been shown to have a causal effect. That made me unpopular pretty quickly, of course, and soon enough I was the center of attention. D'oh...

From there on out, I played the role of correcting inaccuracies ranging from the mundane-but-clearly-wrong (the woman whose daughter had cancer claimed that J. Anthony Morris had been the head of the FDA for several years, when actually he was the chief of vaccines only -- and I suspect they were quote-mining him, although I am having trouble finding good debunking info) to the outright insane -- like the claim that vaccines haven't been responsible for the decline in infectious disease, that it really is just poor sanitation.

This last point leads to one point on which I was unfortunately utterly unprepared: They trotted out this chart, which the chiropractor running the meeting claimed as proof that measles had been mostly cured by the time the vaccine came about. I knew this could not be right, but she insisted it was from the CDC, and numerous other people nodded and said they had seen the chart. Stupid me, I should have asked to see the chart up close, because it shows mortalities from measles, etc., not cases. Well, yeah, better healthcare improved the survivability of measles. However, actually cases of measles declined by 99% after the vaccine was introduced. Stupid me, though, I was unprepared for this bit of trickery, and had to just let it go.

There was a lot of discussion about relative risks, the benefits of vaccines, etc. At one point I said that if people really were concerned about vaccine side-effects, they should "Get vaxed for their grandkids' sake", because if these diseases become extinct in the wild, nobody has to get vaccinated anymore. Hooo boy, I got daggers when I said that one. Wow.

Let's see, what else... oh, the chiropractor got her papers mixed up at one point and said, "I can't find the list of vaccine ingredients". Well! I had just printed out the CDC's list before coming to the meeting (you know, the accurate one), so I was able to trot right up and give it to her. "Oh, this won't work," she said, "because it doesn't list what all these things are" and why they are so terrible. Facepalm! I told her I could tell everyone what each ingredient was, but she managed to find her own list of lies before I got a chance.

First thing she said was that there was anti-freeze in vaccines. What. The. Fuck. As I mentioned over at Orac's blog, I was not prepared for this, because I thought the anti-vax folks had abandoned this canard. I don't recall the name of the chemical the chiropractor said was anti-freeze (it was not one of the usual suspects.. I think it might have been beta-propiolactone?) and I didn't have time to write it down either, unfortunately. I tried e-mailing the chiropractor this morning, and she replied with a bouncing reply-to address to say to call her office. It's on my agenda for later... I suspect she doesn't want any of this in writing...

She also played the formaldehyde gambit, but I parried this by getting one of the crunchy folks there to admit that we had probably breathed more formaldehyde from the outgassing of the carpet of the room we were in than anything in a vaccine.

The lady whose daughter "got cancer from vaccines" told a story about how the individual vaccine doses do not have thimerosal on the ingredient list, but that the large box they come in does, and therefore doctors are lying. I couldn't respond to this one either, but I suspect based on the overall veracity of her information that the poor woman might have just simply made this one up. She also said the Jonas Salk claimed later in life that if he knew all of the damage that would have been done by his polio vaccine, he never would have created it. I thought I remembered hearing this myth once before, so I tried to look it up on my phone... but couldn't find anything. I think she just made up out of whole cloth! If someone has an idea what she was talking about, please let me know in the comments section.

I didn't even get a chance to debunk the thimerosal-autism link, because then the cancer-daugher-lady was on to Andrew Wakefield. Yes, really. She fawned excessively about how "good-looking" and "honest" he was, and his "irresistible British accent", before painting him like a martyr for the cause. When I brought up that he is being investigated for professional misconduct, her response was that they haven't "yet" succeeded in revoking his license. Yeah, great defense...

I was unfortunately unable to pursue all of this to the degree I wanted, because I was eventually asked to be quiet so that people could hear the chiropractor's presentation, since after all, that's what they were there for. This was particularly ironic because the lady whose daughter had cancer had just finished telling a story about how she went to a conference on vaccines and how they eventually started ignoring her questions because she was anti-vax -- and how this showed they really didn't want to hear both sides. Har har har. It was at this point I said, "Okay fine, but don't confuse my being passionate with having too much information." Hey, what can I say, I'm an asshole. At least I'm an asshole for the good side?

It's also worth pointing out that the lady who blamed her daughter's cancer on vaccines talked just as much as I did, and she wasn't the presenter either, and nobody asked her to stop... it's because they only want to hear one side. Which brings me to the one time I lost my cool, and that's when the chiropractor claimed that I had been fed a lot of one-sided information. How dare she. Heh, I don't remember exactly what I said, but I thought it was something like, "That's not true, I've been to Age of Autism, Generation Rescue, all of these places, and I am well aware of both sides of the argument. That is an ad hominem attack. If you're going to say that about me, I'm going to say that about you, that you only have one-sided information." At least, that's what I remember saying... my wife said it basically came across as "I know you are but what am I."

heh, oops... Well, what can I say? I was furious. She had asked me to let her go ahead with her presentation, which is fine, but her parting shot was that I only had one-sided information. What a cheap, dirty, underhanded tactic.

Anyway, even though I am ranting a lot here, I mostly kept my cool, which was good. I do honestly believe that a reason a lot of people go running into the hands of anti-vax is because they hear a little bit of propaganda, get scared, ask their doctor about it, and get an unfriendly and/or aggressive response that just turns them off. The word "bully" is thrown around a lot when anti-vaxers discuss the experience with their pediatricians. While the hardcore anti-vaxers are already lost, the same is not true of many frightened new parents who have just gotten a few tidbits of misinformation. It's important that their concerns are addressed point-for-point, with patience -- even if their concerns are fucking retarded bullshit. heh, oops, I'm letting my temper show through again.

One of the couples from my wife's playgroup left when I was silenced. The husband wanted to hear what I have to say, and I am supposed to look him up on Facebook today. I think the wife was a little mad at me, heh, but oh well, she is cool and I think she is level-headed enough to sort through this stuff.

We had to leave shortly thereafter because my son was getting really fussy, and anyway I couldn't take all that much more. I probably could have done more good by staying, but man, it is stressful being in a room of twenty-against-one! I remember seeing Hitchens do a two-hour debate on this panel that was him and four theologians, and thinking at the time how exhausting that must be. Yep, pretty much.

One of the other husbands caught me on the way out and asked me a bunch of questions. So I guess it wasn't a total loss. If I just planted some seeds of skepticism in one or two people, it was probably worth it. I hope.

I'm sure there's all kinds of crap I am forgetting... There was one point I distinctly remember when the chriopractor was talking, and I was jotting down single-word notes on points I wanted to rebut... and she was spouting false or misleading information faster than I could write! I left with about a page and a half of notes on crap I hadn't even gotten a chance to address... but what can you do? There is a potentially infinite amount of fallacious arguments, and only a finite amount of time for rebuttal. Especially when you are trying to rebut inside an echo chamber.

So anyway, it was, uh... interesting. Would I do it again? Maybe. But only if I had a bottle of fine bourbon waiting for me when I got home...

Update: Apparently my wife's friend who told her about this meeting has already had like eight people e-mail her to complain about my "negative energy". The contention is that it wasn't the content of what I was saying, but that I was interrupting the presenter. This doesn't hold water, though, because the lady whose daughter had cancer interjected at least as much as I did, and nobody had a problem with that...

And anyway, even if I was being rude, I don't really care... If you say something that is provably false to a room full of concerned parents, I'm interrupting you and correcting you, end of story.


  1. I just banged my head on my desk for you. I owe you an alcoholic beverage of your choice; perhaps two, if they're cheap and it's payday.

  2. Thank you for being so brave - sometimes we have to confront this epidemic of misinformation one person at a time. it's exhausting but children's health lie in the balance.

    Dawn Crawford - Communications Manager of CCIC

  3. Those charts you mention are of deaths, not cases, due to the diseases in question. I haven't actually checked the original source of the data to confirm the charts are accurate (and with anti-vaxers that's usually a good idea) but that's basically the usual tactic. Because it's true, there was a lot of progress in preventing *deaths* due to infectious disease before vaccines came into the picture. The charts would be a lot different if they showed number of cases.

  4. @Joseph: Yeah, I figured that out right after the meeting. The problem with taking denialists head on is that they can just make stuff up, whereas the rest of us are limited by reality. It is 100% impossible to be prepared for every angle.

    I'll be ready for that chart next time, though. Actually, I'm hoping to get parallel data on # of cases, and plot both on the same chart. I think it would be rather striking...

  5. I would say that was a spot on representation of the meeting as I saw it. Thank you for being the voice of reason. I'm sorry we didn't stay longer. I was getting pretty embarrassed for the twenty, and decided they didn't have any facts that were actual facts anyway. I look forward to meeting you at a playgroup session, and picking your brain.

    brian newcomb

  6. Awesome, it's great to hear a word of encouragement. Thanks! We left pretty soon after you guys did, because Quinn was fussing, and anyway, I wasn't sure how much more I could take. I doubt you missed much.

    I hope I didn't piss off Amanda too much :) I heard she kinda wanted to hear what the chiropractor had to say.. I had actually meant to hold off most of my questions until the end, but they kept saying things that were just, well, flat-out untrue. heh...

    Anyway, I'm glad not everyone in the room wanted me to die. ;) Thanks!!

    P.S. I sent you a friend request on Facebook.

  7. Hi, I arrived here through the link in your comment on the WEIT blog. Congratulations on being able to speak out like that. My temper is much too short to do it.

    One of the reasons that people are able to believe such nonsense is that they find themselves in the sort of echo chamber you described. I once found myself in an isolated environment with a lot of alternative types. When I look back, I'm surprised at some of the silly things I believed. It's possible that a surprising amount of falsehood is propagated because people are unwilling to make themselves unpleasant by speaking out forcefully.

    It's probably a good thing you did. I hope you don't get too much fallout from it.


  8. Oh, I *feel* this.

    I relate. Ye gods and little fishies, do I relate.

    ...Another thought regarding the chart of daths from measles vs. cases of measles -- what is also left off the charts of deaths is the number of morbidities, as opposed to mortalities: things like permanent deafness, & brain damage from measles enchephalitis, for example. If they are all about how vaccines supposedly cause brain damage, it might be worth digging up figures on how often measles causes brain damage. (I'll look; I may even have this information already.)

  9. Wow. Just stopped over from PZ's blog.

    This is a very frustrating topic. I found myself agonizing over my son's vaccinations, and it was mainly due to being in an exhausted and emotional state and hearing the mass hysteria in the media from the anti-vaccination crowd. It preys on people, especially new parents, who are nervous and concerned for their baby.

    But we have a great pediatrician, and the boy is on a good schedule for his shots. He's current, and doing great.