TCA: Nova’s ‘Vaccines’ Producers Aim to Dispel Internet Rumors

The Television Critics Association session for the experts involved with PBS and WGBH’s upcoming “Nova” doc “Vaccines – Calling the Shots”  started off as combative — Paul Offit, the chief of the division of infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, responded to a journalist’s question about whether parents who don’t vaccinate their kids “are idiots” by saying these people are “making a bad and misinformed choice” and that it’s “a terrible decision that comes with terrible consequence” — but the documentary does address various opinions.

Documentary filmmaker Sonya Pemberton, who is producing the project with Tangled Bank Studios, said that although she comes from a scientific background, she wanted to be able show a healthy dialogue in her film.

“I spent about a year talking to many, many parents … I saw the whole spectrum, and what became clear to me is that we had this false polarity of us versus them; people who were for vaccination and people who were against,” she said. “In my experience, and with the data it is clear, about 90% plus of parents in the United States vaccinate …  We have this artificial sense that there’s a big divide, but what I was interested in the 50-odd percent or so, depending on what study you look at, who have questions about vaccines, who have concerns about vaccines. And the journey I traveled with the film is to have a respectful conversation with those parents.”

She said the film’s stories range from outbreaks to risk assessment so that “we try and take people on this journey” to understand that science supports vaccinations.

The panelists also discussed Internet misinformation, such as fears that HPV vaccinations will make teens promiscuous or citations of Andrew Wakefield’s now-disproven 1998 study that claimed to show a link between MMR vaccinations and autism (“The Internet is a source of great and awful information,” Offit said), and anti-vaccination spokespeople like Jenny McCarthy.

“I think Jenny McCarthy has done a lot of harm and continues to do a lot of harm,” said Alison Singer, president, Autism Science Foundation. “I think she continues to put children at risk by failing to acknowledge what the data clearly say and when confronted with the data, her response is I don’t care what the data show, I know in my heart that when my son received the MMR the light left his eyes and he became autistic. Those are very powerful. Those anecdotes are what get you on ‘Oprah.'” … What Jenny McCarthy likes to say is show me the study that proves vaccines don’t cause autism. And there will never be a study that proves a study that vaccines don’t cause autism because science does not work that way. You cannot prove the negative.”

Pemberton said she does not mention McCarthy because the actress and TV hostess is not “scientifically qualified” and also only briefly concentrates on the Wakefield study in her film. Instead, she chose to focus on the new information that autism develops in the second month of pregnancy. She also said she “put an awful lot of effort into not making it a dreary film.”

“Fundamentally, the vaccine story is a good news story,” she said, adding: “We had some fun with the graphics. We were able to go back in time and tell you the story of how vaccines emerged at least 1,000 years ago … the fundamental structure is a global story with the emphasis on America and using case studies and individual people to illuminate the core ideas of science.”

“Vaccines – Calling the Shots” premieres at 9 p.m. on September 10.

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  1. reissd says:

    Unfortunately, prescience mom’s claims are very inaccurate in turn.

    A. While there was a Cochrane review suggesting very low effectiveness of the influenza vaccine, that is not the only article about effectiveness and most other articles disagree. Real-life vaccine effectiveness data also doesn’t fit your claims: last year, the flu vaccine was 64% effective in children (while I’d agree with woefully inadequate for strain A in the elderly), this year it was around 60% in all age group – which is a lot higher than the zero protection of not vaccinating.

    B. One baboon study does suggest that the acellular pertussis vaccine does not prevent transmission, but that study to points out that the vaccine is reasonably effective in preventing the illness.
    We could use more effective flu and pertussis vaccines – but that does not make the existing ones useless. They still offer much better protection than not vaccinating.

    C. Gardasil was in clinical trials since at least 2000 before getting to market in 2006. It was tested in over 30,000 women. That’s neither rushed nor untested – quite the opposite. And large scale studies in multiple countries since – and monitoring of millions of doses – show that it is extremely safe, with the only side effect causally connected to it – besides local reactions – being fainting on the day of.

    D. Vaccines are examined one by one, the pros and cons of each vaccine looked at. The elaborate, careful process of putting them on the schedule does exactly that. They are examined for safety, effectiveness and cost-effectiveness and don’t get on the schedule unless their benefits far outweigh their risks. For example, the current meningococcal vaccine is not on the U.S. schedule because it’s considered not cost effective to put it there – although it could save lives.

    E. Describing the extensive literature examining whether vaccines cause autoimmune disorders or seizures as industry-funded and industry controlled – without bringing any evidence of that – is problematic. Scientists from different countries and different independent teams looked at those questions and found no support for anti-vaccine claims on these subjects. There is no credible support for the claims that vaccines cause autism, diabetes, seizure disorders, and so forth. There is credible support for some other adverse events – extremely rarely. Here is the recent review of many, many studies: Margaret A. Maglione, et al., Safety of Vaccines Used for Routine Immunization of US Children: A Systematic Review, doi: 10.1542/peds.2014-1079 PEDIATRICS (2014).

    It concluded: “CONCLUSIONS: We found evidence that some vaccines are associated with serious AEs; however, these events are extremely rare and must be weighed against the protective benefits that vaccines provide.”

    F. It’s untrue that VAERS is the only existing system to monitor reactions. In the U.S., there’s the Vaccine Safety Datalink. There are also studies using other databases. And let’s not ignore the studies from abroad on the same vaccines. We have extensive information about vaccines’ adverse events.

    And it’s also incorrect that reporting to VAERS is voluntary. 42 U.S.C s. 300a a-26 requires providers to report adverse events.

    And studies looking, for example, at allergies and asthma look years after the fact – for example, looking at 8-12 years old for effects of first year vaccines.

    G. The idea of contraindications is that we do not vaccinate – or vaccinate differently – children with known problems. So when a problem is known, it’s taken into account. I haven’t seen evidence that the claims you make about problems are indeed problems, though. You’re welcome to provide some. Since, for example, vaccines do not cause autoimmune disorders, why check for a family history of them?

  2. Karen Ernst says:

    I’m excited to see this project on PBS. It’s time we all sat down and talked about vaccines.

    One correction: *Andrew* Wakefield is the fraudulent doctor’s name.

  3. Connie says:

    It’s good that the filmmaker acknowledged her pro-vaccine agenda. That’s better than her pretending to approach the issue objectively.

    • reissd says:

      There’s a reason the scientific and medical consensus supports vaccination: the science is very clear that vaccines’ small risks are far outweighed by their benefits. Anyone approaching the issue objectively can’t help but end up with that conclusion. It’s not an agenda: it’s what the data shows.

      • Connie says:

        Yes. Almost all individuals value vaccines and appreciate having access to them. The vast majority of parents in the U.S. fully vaccinate their children on time. That doesn’t mean there are no valid concerns about vaccine safety and effectiveness. Those kinds of concerns by parents and scientists in the past have led to improvements in vaccines. Most parents who express concerns about vaccines these days want scientists to identify the vulnerable sub-populations of kids who are most susceptible to vaccine adverse events and face the greatest risk. They recognize there is risk but they want to minimize it so they can vaccinate their kids.

  4. reissd says:

    A. I am very excited to see this film being produced. I hope it will live up to its promise. The fact that it focuses on information rather than personalities is a great start, and addressing concerns is very important. Thank you for highlighting it.

    B. It’s Andrew Wakefield.

  5. Dorothy says:

    Jenny McCarthy has caused many parents to go along with her stand against vaccines, because they want there to be a cause that they can blame autism on. If scientists knew of any link to vaccines don’t you think they would have been out there saying so. Jenny is not a doctor or a scientist. They have proven her wrong, autism doesn’t show up immediately.

    • reissd says:

      It’s sad that after all the evidence of his dishonesty, some parents still believe in Andrew Wakefield’s discredited, disproven claims. Even without the evidence of fraud – and that exists – Andrew Wakefield’s small study did not find a link showing vaccines cause autism, and multiple large scale studies in different countries found no such link.

      Andrew Wakefield caused substantial harms to the public health, and his misrepresentation literally caused children’s lives – and protected no child against autism.

      • paul says:

        @reissd: Wakefield’s paper never claimed it showed a link between MMR and autism. In fact it specifically states that it didn’t do that.

        Can you explain what you mean by ‘even without evidence of fraud’ followed by ‘ and that exists’ ? Having a bet both ways here ? So if it exists, where and what is it ? ( link please – again I’d like to see it for myself )


      • paul says:

        @reissd: Can you post a link to the fraud evidence you say exists, please ? I’d like to see it for myself.

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