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PBS's Frontline Finds Itself on the Front Lines of "The Vaccine War"

By carolyncastiglia |

Dr. Jay Gordon, the controversial pediatrician who treats Jenny McCarthy’s autistic son, Evan, released a statement today calling Frontline’s documentary The Vaccine War, “disgraceful,” perhaps in large part due to the fact that none of his interview footage was included in the final product.

Ken Tucker, television blogger for Entertainment Weekly, offered a preview of the series in his column yesterday.  His loathing of vaccine-hesitant members of Generation X is palpable. “And thus the vaccine-deniers can pursue their dangerously self-righteous agenda, secure in the knowledge that their little un-needled Jane or Johnny, should they contract a contagious disease, won’t cause a pandemic… because the rest of us are keeping such diseases at bay.”  He goes on to mock the hippie culture of Ashland, OR, featured in the first section of the documentary.  (Click here to watch the entire program.)  “The town, a wealthy community filled with health-food stores and overflowing with yoga mats, is a hotbed of vaccine-deniers. And, scientists say, a dreadful example of what could happen, because it’s far more likely that, should measles or whooping cough enter that community, it would spread much faster than in a town where citizens are thinking beyond the walls of their own houses, and of the public good.

It’s easy to understand why vaccinating your children is important.  As Steven Novella said in a 2008 post on the blog Science-Based Medicine:

If Gordon had his way… as soon as we got close to eradicating any disease we should back off on vaccinations for that disease, which would inevitably lead to its resurgence. We would forever be playing “whack a mole” with the disease, never eliminating it completely.

Gordon’s major bone of contention with The Vaccine War co-producer Katie McMahon is that, “’Irresponsible moms against science’ was an easy takeaway from the show.”  While Frontline does air footage from both sides of the debate, it’s clear that their coverage is biased toward vaccination, with quotes like this one from Emilio Emini, head of “vaccine operations” (sounds creepy) at Pfizer:

“People haven’t seen these kinds of diseases in a while.  So people become complacent, they don’t vaccinate, and what they wind up doing is putting their children and themselves in considerable risk of a severe disease and infection.”

Dr. Paul Offit, co-inventor of the vaccine against rotavirus, is known as “Dr. Profit” among anti-vaccine groups.  When asked about the millions he’s made from the sale of his vaccine, he told Frontline, “It doesn’t matter whether I financially benefited or not.  The only thing that mattered is ‘Did the vaccine that we created… do what it was claimed to do?  Has it prevented hospitalization and suffering and death?’  And the answer to that question is yes.”  Gordon thinks Offit got a pass here, saying, “No one pursued Dr. Offit’s response about becoming rich from the vaccine he invented. He was allowed to slide right by that question without any follow up…. His many millions “don’t matter” he says. And you let it go.”

Jennifer Margulis, an Ashland, OR resident and author, thinks “it’s a mistake that we have a vaccine against rotavirus. In the third world maybe people are dying of rotavirus, but in this country you have to do back flips to show a death toll of people from rotavirus.”  Dr. Cynthia Cristofani, a pro-vaccine pediatric intensivist from Portland, OR, backs that up by saying that rotavirus kills 500,000 people annually, but mostly in remote parts of the world.

Since most anti-vaccine parents don’t immunize their children due to a fear of autism, the heart of the issue here is whether or not vaccines cause autism at all.  According to Frontline, the answer is no.  A 1998 paper written by Dr. Andrew Wakefield suggesting that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) “triple shot” may lead to autism was retracted on February 2, 2010 by The Lancet, the medical publication in which it first appeared.  It turns out some of the children Wakefield studied were sent to him by a lawyer representing their families in a case against the pharmaceutical industry, which, in a domino effect, caused recent lawsuits on behalf of families dealing with autism to be thrown out of court.

The great vaccine debate is probably most neatly summarized in The Vaccine War by an exchange between an anti-vaccine Ashland mother and Dr. Jim Shames, the city’s public health officer.  He asked, “When you make that decision for your child, which you have a right to do, do you think you may be affecting other children?”  “No, I don’t,” the mother responded.  “Because if the vaccines work, who am I putting at risk?”

Which brings me back to Ken Tucker’s disdain for this type of selfishness.  “The Gen-X parents are the first generation to live in a world without polio, and they make an absurd leap: I don’t see it, so it can’t be that bad. They depend on what’s called “herd immunity” — the notion that a majority of other parents will vaccinate their children.”

As for Dr. Jay Gordon, he maintains that he is in a “third camp” of doctors who are neither pro- nor anti-vaccine.  “There are many doctors and even more parents who would like a more judicious approach to immunization. Give vaccines later, slower and with an individualized approach as we do in every other area of medicine.”

If you can’t get enough of this heated debate, here’s a lengthy post about The Vaccine War from Respectful Insolence, of ScienceBlogs.com.

More on Babble

About carolyncastiglia

carolyncastiglia

carolyncastiglia

Carolyn Castiglia is a New York-based comedian/writer wowing audiences with her stand-up and freestyle rap. She’s appeared in TONY, The NY Post, The Idiot’s Guide to Jokes and Life & Style. You can find Carolyn’s writing elsewhere online at MarieClaire.com and The Huffington Post. Read bio and latest posts → Read Carolyn's latest posts →

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33 thoughts on “PBS's Frontline Finds Itself on the Front Lines of "The Vaccine War"

  1. Laure68 says:

    “While Frontline does air footage from both sides of the debate, it’s clear that their coverage is biased toward vaccination.” It is incorrect to call this biased. In science, it is wrong to think there is always 2 sides. Sometimes the data is so evident that there is only one side, as is true in this case. The anti-vaccine people have no data to back them up, but they insist on having their say because they believe everything has two sides. That is kind of like saying we should be teaching creationism in public school in the interest of representing both sides.

    Also, it is total BS for Jay Gordon to say he is not anti-vaccine. There is absolutely no science to back up his views, and everything I read from him is completely anti-vaccine. He wants us to change our policies based on his gut feelings rather than real data.

  2. Laure68 says:

    Sorry, I meant “it is wrong to think there are always 2 sides.”

  3. esthermaker says:

    I just watched this online, and I found Jennifer Margulis’ attitude to be deeply disturbing. She came across as very smug, and is a perfect example of how a very intelligent, educated person can be completely ignorant in areas outside of their specialization. At one point, she comments that there hasn’t been a case of polio in the US since 1979. Yeah, lady – that’s because of vaccination. It exists all over the world, and if you have not met a polio victim, you might now know how devastating that disease is. But by far the stupidest comment she makes is that she would rather her child “get sick and develop resistance to diseases we’ve been exposed to for 200,000 years” (I paraphrase, but that is the figure she gave and that was her point) then be vaccinated. I don’t even know where to start with that. It’s asinine. It’s ahistorical. It’s dangerous.

    Jenny McCarthy is another infuriating figure. She’d rather her child have measles, huh? Visit an old graveyard and have a look at the ages on some of the headstones from the past, then ask yourself again if you would like that. And on a side note, she’s oh-so-terrified of vaccinations, but not of extensive plastic surgery. I wonder if she is aware of how many deaths and disfigurements have been caused by plastic surgeries gone awry?

    This Babble post is somewhat misleading, because of its focus on Dr. Gordon; there is so much of value in the Frontline documentary, including graphic and heartbreaking footage of children with preventable diseases in Oregon hospitals. For me, the takeaway was that a great many people in this country have absolutely no knowledge of history, and little or no sense of public citizenship. It’s all about them and their individual beliefs. Well, let me tell you something: your precious individual beliefs will not defend you and your family against virulent pathogens. Many of our ancestors died, were maimed, orphaned, ruined by these diseases. How dare they be so cavalier not just with their own childrens’ health, but that of other children?

  4. Laure68 says:

    One more comment. (Sorry, but the more I read this the more I get upset.) It really is ridiculous to suggest that Paul Offit is a bad guy because he made some money off of his vaccine. What kind of society do we live in where someone who spends his life developing a vaccine should not get paid, but athletes get paid more than $20 million a year, actors get paid as much for a picture, etc? In fact, there was an excellent article in Wired magazine last November about anti-vaccine groups. In it they visit Paul Offit, and remark how he and his wife both drive Camrys and live in a relatively modest house. When I first read this I got kind of mad, thinking that it doesn’t matter how he lives if there is good science behind what he says (which there is). However, my husband pointed out that a lot of people need to see this, especially when people like Jim Carrey call Offit “greedy”. In reality, the criticisms of Dr. Offit are baseless. He invented a vaccine that is effective and safe, but is labeled as some kind of evil figure because he dared make money from his work.

  5. esthermaker says:

    Apologies for my typos – typing with a baby on my lap is hard!

  6. GtothemfckinP says:

    Hey I am very pro vax, for the big, time-tested ones they’ve been doing for years, but I have to agree the rotavirus is not necessary and I have my doubts about Gardasil…so using the rotavirus quote at the end is kind of a little off. It’s not like its polio or something…it’s glorified diarrhea…

  7. esthermaker says:

    Laure68 – All excellent points. The documentary laid out the story, with the balance of information showing that the science is on the side of vaccinations. That is not bias. That is a demonstration of the findings.

    I wish these parents would take their considerable energy, love, and power, and put it into fighting the real battles. How about taking on the reckless cocktail of chemicals we are eating, drinking, wearing, and breathing? Perhaps that might be to blame for the rising autism rate. Is that simply too big and terrifying to face down? I understand that it might be. But it still needs to be dealt with.

  8. esthermaker says:

    Diarrhea can kill babies and young children very fast.

  9. Laure68 says:

    @esthermaker – I totally agree about how Jennifer Margulis comes across. She has a PhD in English, yet she believes she knows more about disease and vaccination than infectious disease specialists? She’d rather have her child “naturally” get a disease? When people naturally got all these diseases our life expectancy was much lower. I’m not sure how these people’s minds work?

  10. GtothemfckinP says:

    re diarrhea…my choice for my child was based on the fact that she was breastfed on demand and living in the Western world…plenty of fluids available…getting the rotavirus vax just didn’t make sense to me *and* when I told the ped I was declining, she said, “well, we don’t give it anyway…” all that said, I am very pro vax for the biggies and think these folks are a little wack

  11. kimora says:

    Comments
    My son very nearly died here in the developed world from a rotavirus. He lost 20% of his body weight. It was terrifying. I’m so glad they had the vaccine by the time my daughter was born.

  12. NPMommy says:

    I didn’t see the special but just felt the need to weigh in on the rotavirus comments. Yes, its true that rotavirus is diarrhea but its not just “glorified diarrhea”. I actually doubt the average mom these days has really seen a case of rotavirus thanks to the vaccine. I, however, saw many many children with rotavirus when I worked as a pediatric nurse back in the 90s. It is a NASTY thing I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, much less a child. It is not just glorified diarrhea. It is persistent, constant diarrhea, on top of that vomiting. The children we would see in the office were so sick and miserable. They would quickly become severely dehydrated- yes fluids are available here but they don’t stay down! And while its true MOST of the time the severe dehydration is manageable in the hospital trying to get IV access into a severely dehydrated baby/child is a miserable experience. And it doesn’t always work- Dr. Offit first got interested in working on a vaccine for rotavirus after a young patient of his (7 months old I think) died of it. So really it isn’t just “glorified diarrhea”. So yes, I had both of my sons vaccinated against it- I personally am so thankful they were protected from the virus (and yes, they were/are both breastfed as well).

  13. Michelelebelle says:

    No one mentions that polio, mumps, measles and rubella rates were all dropping BEFORE the vaccines were even introduced. I have to agree, the vaccine schedule is too aggressive for an infant’s body to handle. My son got 3 vaccinations when he was only 6lbs and another 4 vaccinations two months later when he was about 10lbs. His digestive system shut down after the second series of shots and yes, he’s autistic, but recovering, due to biological interventions that work well for him. For the naysayers (pro-vaccine folks), why doesn’t the Amish community have the same rates of autism that the rest of us do? It’s because they do not vaccinate. (Exception: 2 Chinese adopted children have autism in the Amish community, according to the 2003 Study data). Finally, I’ve read many scientific studies on mercury (ethyl & methyl-types) poisoning, and the result is neurological disorders, for example, digestive problems, social deficits, learning disorders, etc., and guess what? There is even a study that was conducted from 1950s through 1970s where thousands of Iraqi people were exposed to mercury (methyl) and all those people have had the same symptoms as the autistic kids we are seeing today. Can’t you nay-sayers connect the dots? Finally, the Rotavirus vaccine just had a massive RECALL, due to PIG DNA being found active in the vaccine. Yeah, it’s a safe vaccine…pulease!

  14. sweets672 says:

    Agreed…rotovirus is deadly in undeveloped countries where clean drinking water is not readily available. But here in the US, unless there is an underlying condition that puts a child at extreme risk, rotovirus is little more than a stomach bug. Regardless of the to vac or not vax debate, the problem still exists that as the number of vaccines children receive increased, so did the number of autism cases. It may not be that one certain vaccine is the culprit – but I think that regardless of whether you like her or not, Jenny McCarthy has a valid point in questioning whether giving so many in such a short time period may be harmful. I think if I was to have another child now, I would have some hard decisions to make.

  15. PlumbLucky says:

    Ditto. Its interesting being the unofficial “family historian” what you learn…some of it’ll make your jaw drop indeed.
    re: rotavirus…we did get it for our son, based on our peds’ recommendation which included the questioning of whether I worked or not, and what childcare situation we were in if I did. His rec was that if the babe was in a daycare center, definitely. Sitter or nanny, maybe. Since our sitter did watch one other child at the time, and that child’s parents were both elementary school teachers…it made sense to get it for him. The ped did not recommend the vaccine if you stayed at home with the child.
    And I am curious how showing the science that does back the one side strongly can be considered bias, not science. And I think y’all might have something with this cocktail of chemical crapola in our day-to-day lives and the rising rates of autism – though I also wonder if perhaps the rising rate has to do with doctors actually knowing what to look for now as opposed to even ten years ago.

  16. Curiocity says:

    How come Denmark gives 12 vaccines but the US gives 36? Are there more diseases in the US? Should we boycott travel to Denmark?

  17. Laure68 says:

    Michelelbelle – that is actually a myth. If you look at actual rates of polio and measles, they dropped drastically after the vaccines were introduced. What anti-vaxxers like to point out are death rates from these diseases. Before the polio vaccine was introduced, they started using iron lungs for people with polio. Yes, they lived longer, but not an exactly ideal way of living.

    Also, it is a huge myth that the Amish do not vaccinate their children. They absolutely do vaccinate. (They may not get all the same vaccinations, but they definitely get shots.) Also, they do not use the same criteria to determine if children are autistic, but they do have children who have signs of autism. They just treat them in their own schools.

    It is amazing to me how much the anti-vaccine groups have to rely on misinformation (or often, straight out lies). If they really had any validity to their arguments, they would not have to do this.

    And enough with the mercury. Thimerosal has been taken out of childhood vaccines. (Here in California, it has even been taken out of the pediatric flu shot.) However, autism rates continue to rise.

    In fact, one huge reason autism rates are rising is due to the changing criteria. Before 1980, there was no medical definition for autism, so there was no reason to diagnose someone as autistic. Between 1980 and today, the criteria keep getting looser. In fact, children today are almost never diagnosed as “mentally retarded”. Instead, they are diagnosed as autistic. There are also other diagnoses (CP, speech impediment, etc.) which are now included on the autism spectrum.

    Also, the Rotavirus vaccine was recalled, although there were no injuries from that batch of vaccine. There is such strong surveillance (thank goodness) that we catch things before they become problems.

  18. Laure68 says:

    @sweets672 – one huge problem with saying “too many too soon” is that, previously, we had the small pox vaccine. If you took every shot we give kids today, combined them into one huge shot, and counted all the things people are worried about (antigens, proteins, “toxins”, etc.), it would still not equal the small pox vaccine. In fact, today we can vaccinate against more diseases while exposing our kids to less “stuff” (for lack of a better word) than we were exposed to.

  19. Laure68 says:

    I’d like to make one last comment about autism rates. Recently, UC Davis conducted a study in California, comparing autism rates in different areas of the state. They were looking at a theory that exposure to certain “toxins”, which are more prevalent in some areas, would contribute to autism rates. In fact, they did not find this to be true. What they did find was that white, educated, middle- to upper-middle class people were more likely to have autistic kids. (Ironically, these are the populations that are more likely to avoid/delay vaccination.) The reasoning is that these people were more likely to seek out an autism diagnosis.

    One thing they did find was that older parents had a slightly higher rate of autistic children. Since real scientific research is starting to discover that autism has a genetic component, this is a valid theory. (Advanced parental age is known to raise the rate of chromosomal abnormalities.)

  20. Manjari says:

    I can’t say anything that Laure68 hasn’t already said, so I will just say that I agree with her 100%.

  21. Mark Kennedy says:

    You can watch the entire episode of “The Vaccine War” online here:

    http://www.pbs.me

    Click on the FRONTLINE icon.

  22. Kikiriki says:

    Same here – Laurie68 said it all, and said it extremely well.

  23. Nmommytoo says:

    Comments
    To the nurse who commented about all the rotovirus diarrhea in the 90′s…let me guess where you worked. Might it have been a hospital that cared for a lot of indigent and illegal clients that were housed 10 to a room? Yeah. You know you did because that is some of the only places that it was even studied in the US. Most cases were not checked for rotavirus in the 90′s in other than inner city type areas. In addition, how about my children who were offered the rotavirus vaccine that was pulled? Thank goodness that I said no and it was on the suggested schedule so that I actually had the opportunity to discuss it!

  24. NPMommy says:

    You are wrong Nmommytoo.

    I actually worked in a pediatrician’s office in suburban Georgia! Our patient population was predominantly white middle class. So its not just the indigent and illegals who are at risk for rotavirus! Or those poor children in other countries! Its doesn’t discriminate based on race, SES, or immigration status!!

  25. NPMommy says:

    Oh and no surprise if you read my other comments but I agree that Laure68 said it all and better than I could have. Or have the time to.

  26. Julie says:

    It’s very sad that people are so hateful to us parents whose hearts are suffering because ur autistic children are suffering. The point is that our children are a minority, and indeed not every child is negatively affected by vaccination. For my son, he was harmed by the vaccines and it did cause his autism. All of our lab work points to it. And his recovery is coming along very nicely. Some infant children simply cannot handle the amount of vaccines given in the first 2 years of life while others fortunately can. And there is indeed science, TONS of it, that supports this. The government and CDC just want to continue to say there isn’t so they pay PBS and other programs to keep denying it. People need to look at the science that supports that vaccines do cause autism in some children instead of just listening to people tell them there is none. I think vaccines help people to be spared from diseases, but vaccines do not help ALL people, like my son. Instead of preventing disease, it actually CAUSED his disease. People need to find out and do some testing to see if their child can handle the vaccines beFORE vaccinating. Then they will know what choice to make and it will be the right choice. :)

  27. patricia says:

    Julie, just curious…WHY is it that the CDC and the government pay people off to continue the “vaccine myth”? They are one and the same (the CDC is a governmental agency), and both are immune to lawsuit, so the risk of large payouts is not a factor. They are not the makers of the vaccines and are therefore not the entities that “profit” from them. What vested interest does the CDC and government in general have in (presumably) allowing the country’s children to be at a higher risk of autism through the vaccine schedule? I am genuinely curious as to the rationale here.

    And I’m sorry about your son.

  28. Marj says:

    My boys are vaccinated. Vaccines save lives every single day. Science is not about gut feelings. I do not want resurgences of preventable diseases, but it seems like the people who think science is a belief system will help that happen, and there is nothing I can do about that except vaccinate myself and my children and hope that none of us fall into the small percentage of people for whom a vaccine does not work. The fact is when a documentary is created by scientists, it will make people who don’t believe in science look foolish, just as when a documentary is made by people who distrust science will make scientists and doctors look like evil, uncaring Nazis.
    Doctors do push vaccines for monetary reasons. It is WAY cheaper to give a vaccine than to treat the disease. Plus, way cheaper than malpractice suits if someone dies or is permanently injured by a preventable disease.

  29. [...] Childhood vaccinations continue to be a hot-button issue. Just last week, PBS’ Frontline found itself in the center of the debate with its documentary, “The Vaccine War.” [...]

  30. ChiLaura says:

    Julie, what kind of tests do you suggest to determine vaccine compatibility? As far as I know, a certain mitochondrial disorder was in fact linked to autism in one case, but is there actually a test to determine a child’s risk for this?

  31. Julie says:

    First, to Patricia. I’m not a political buff, so I don’t know how to explain what government agency profits or does not from any lawsuits. I know there is an autism omnibus hearing going on, although my family and I may have missed it. You can look it up. I do know that Hannah Polling’s family did win in a “vaccine court” and were able to prove that Hannah’s autism was caused by the vaccines. Who they sued, I’d have to read the details on that, my suspicion is that it is the vaccine manufacturers, but I don’t know. I am talking to a lawyer, too, but I don’t know what will come of it. At Marj, I do not think that pediatricians are evil and are purposely trying to give children autism, not by any means. I do believe that they are unknowingly doing this, however, because they are just practicing the type of medicine that they are trained in. I have a pediatrician for my children, and she knows what I believe happened to my son. We respect each other and I like her a lot. And that’s the way it should be. I just don’t understand why people can’t give some respect to me and other parents who have worked so hard, day in and day out, to help our children based on lab work. Again, at Marj, my knowing that my son’s autism was caused by vaccines is not a gut feeling, but something I learned through lab work and the biomedical treatment I’ve been working day in and day out for almost 3 years now – doing stool tests, urine and blood work. And my son’s Autism MD is a Dr., an actual MD, who recovered his own son from autism, too. He, too, is not anti-vaccine, simply saying the same thing that I said – not ALL children can handle the vaccines, at least at such a young age. You can check his website out at slettenwellness.com. And look up Hannah Polling, you can see how her family won in vaccine court. My son has very high aluminum levels that we discovered when we did a urine porphryn test, which tsts for heavy metal toxicity. Interestingly, his mercury was low. And we learned that all his vaccines contained aluminum instead of mercury since they removed the mercury in the vaccines and replaced it with aluminum. Many parents also find MMR in their children’s stools when they do stool analysis. Soemtimes it is difficult to find because it is embedded in the small intestines and can only be found if a parent is willing to do a biopsy. I am not willing to do a biopsy on my son, and that may hurt my chances of winning in court, or even getting the attorney I’m talking to to take my case. But this is why antivirals are very effective. Stan Kurtz explains that well on his website, recoveryvideos.com. He recovered his son, Ethan, from autism. At ChiLaura, yes, that is one thing people can test for at infancy is mitochondrial disorder. A test also called nutrigenomic testing also would indicate if a child has certain weaknesses along his/her methylation pathway and is a very excellent indicator of a child’s immune system capability. This science is on Dr. Amy Yasko’s website, ch3nutrigenomics.com. That’s why methylation also helps our children. My son has many supplements he takes, as well as being on a grain free, sugar free, and dairy free diet. We give him approximately 20 supplements a day, and these all aid with detoxing aluminum and gut healing. Some of the supplements, in particular, that we notice helping my son are methyl b12 (the methyl is actually the important part – the ch3), and glutathione for detoxing, and also malic acid as a natural chelator to remove aluminum. Recently we started an antiviral and indeed to address any mmr that is very likely in his small intestines, also contributing to his major bowel problems and the need for gut healing. It seems to be helping. My son was diagnosed by the state with autism in 2008, and he could not speak or look at us. Almost 3 years after working this biomedical treatment, he is now speaking in sentences and in fact, this morning, came out of his room and went up to my husband, completely unprompted, and said “It’s a beautiful beautiful day, Jesus loves me.” :) We rejoice in his healing and progress and with respect to all faiths or non-faiths for that matter, we do follow Jesus and are grateful that He has helped us to scientifically discover how to help medically heal our son. Peace and much love to all of you.

  32. Julie says:

    Ugh, sorry for being sooooo wordy – look how long that is. Sorry.

  33. [...] He lives in Texas now, where he’s a prominent activist in the anti-vaccine movement. The medical establishment may have kicked him to curb, but he’ll always have Jenny McCarthy. [...]

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