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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Alternative Facts from Court, the Anti-Vaccine Edition

In a very real sense, the anti-vaccine movement lives in an alternative reality. It’s a dark, frightening realitywhere there is a global conspiracy run by pharmaceutical companies that, apparently, controls most of the doctors, scientists, and health officials in the world, and every government. Where vaccines are poison and diseases are benign, and all that is bad in the world – or most of it – can be blamed on vaccines.


I want to use a recent FOIA stipulation to demonstrate how this is formed, how anti-vaccine  groups interpret reality to make it more sinister. This might also give some insight into the phenomenon of alternative facts more generally.


On July 9, 2018 a stipulation resolving a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) case between an anti-vaccine group, Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN), and the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), was filed. ICAN requested from HHS “reports transmitted to the Committee on Energy and Commerce of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Labor and Human Resources of the Senate by the Secretary of HHS Pursuant to 42 U.S.C.  §300aa-27.” That section requires DHHS to work to improve vaccine safety and report on its efforts to the two congressional committees every two years.


The stipulation included DHHS’ statement that it conducted thorough searches and did not find any such documents. The natural implication is that such reports were never filed. Why they were never filed, I don’t know. It certainly may be a failure on the part of the DHHS – and on the part of the Congressional Committees that did not follow up – and the natural result would be for DHHS to start filing such reports. There may be more to it.


The interesting story is how the stipulation was described on anti-vaccine pages. To protect individual privacy and not shame private people, I will refer only to public pages and leading figures.


In a discussion of the case on an anti-vaccine web broadcast, anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. – who was the lawyer signing the stipulation for ICAN - said: “what HHS has admitted here is that there is no scrutiny; there is no vigilance.And of course, the gravamen of their strategy has been to make sure that vaccines are never safety tested.” Kennedy did not quite say there are no studies, but he suggested there is no monitoring of safety.


The show includes a caption that says: Government concedes: There are no safety studies on vaccines...”


Del Bigtree No Safety Studies



In a discussion on a popular anti-vaccine page, the same heading was used: “HHS concedes no afety studies on vaccines.”


Many other anti-vaccine pages followed through. To give one example, the page Oregonians for Vaccine Choice said:



To be fair, a few sites have tried to pull back and be more accurate – The World Mercury Project, an anti-vaccine outfit created by, among others, Robert F. Kennedy – explained that this is about not filing reports. Though it did it in a post connecting to the inaccurate statements by Mr. Kennedy and the inaccurate caption I described above, so the nuance may be lost. Similarly, Oklahomans for Vaccine Choice, after initially saying HHS did not do one safety study, corrected it to saying they did not file reports. But the general message was “no safety studies!”


That is, of course, not what the FOIA request was about at all. It is also incorrect.


The CDC provides a useful central page with links to various collections of vaccines safety studies by itself and other parts of HHS. While not part of HHS, at HHS’s request the National Academy of Medicine – formerly the Institute of Medicine – created several reports on vaccines safety, reviewing abundant literature and synthesizing it. In 2014, the HHS commissioned another large report on vaccines safety by another group. There are several federal committees overseeing vaccines safety, and four monitoring systems looking at vaccines safety, all connected to HHS.


Saying HHS did not do safety studies or did not work on vaccines safety for 30 years is simply untrue, or, in today’s parlance, alternative facts. But this is how this simple, straightforward court decision has been read on anti-vaccine sites, and that is the message being distributed. Again, I do not want to shame or target individuals, including leaders of the anti-vaccine movement, so have limited this to public pages.


This is how fake news are born, even in the face of a simple three-page court document. It is likely, at least, to widen the gap between firm believers in the anti-vaccine reality and the rest of society that realizes this is untrue, creating even more mistrust. Whether it will go beyond that is unclear. It is relatively easily disproven, so it might actually help demonstrate how unreliable anti-vaccine claims generally are. We will have to see. 

Posted by Dorit Reiss on July 17, 2018 at 09:13 AM in Culture, Current Affairs, Law and Politics | Permalink


Just corrections to my comment above :

Should be : Mkultra , and not : Makultra .And of course : Dorit, and not : " Dortit .


Posted by: El roam | Jul 17, 2018 6:59:13 PM

Dortit , indeed , I am more than happy , that we do agree on it . Thanks

Posted by: El roam | Jul 17, 2018 12:15:27 PM

I completely agree that we need to continue to be vigilant and monitor vaccine safety, and continue having multiple mechanisms of accountability and a lot of effort devoted to that. It's crucially important. And we certainly should not blindly (or even half-blindly) trust manufacturers.

Posted by: Dorit Reiss | Jul 17, 2018 11:45:32 AM

Great post . Of course , there is no need to exaggerate , and conclude in such hasty and unfair manner , based upon one request , that dozens of years , no research has been made . But either , not to over trust or blindly trust any medical concept or procedure or perception , whether private , whether governmental . For caution is always warranted , for horrific things took place in course of history and as we write . So , people should feel good or better , when such organizations like that anti vaccine movement , function constantly as gate keeper or watchdogs , inspecting and watching all around , and raising awareness so to such actions . Finally , even if one trust vaccines , not to forget , the rule states clearly , I quote :

(1) promote the development of childhood vaccines that result in fewer and less serious adverse reactions than those vaccines on the market on December 22, 1987, and promote the refinement of such vaccines

End of quotation :

So , not in vain , there are consequences , undesirable as such , and it should be improved constantly . Without such watchdogs , much less awareness to such consequences would be the result . On the other hand , there is no need either to exaggerate in mistrust .

Yet again , things happened , and still happen . Let me take you to a negligible tour:

In your first post , I introduced , that medical joke , of homosexual classified as sick persons , or suffering from mental disease , but that was a joke yet , see hereby :

Bearing the title :

GlaxoSmithKline fined $3bn after bribing doctors to increase drugs sales :


And here , horrific experiments at the time ( 50th, 60th ) in the US ( Makultra operation ):


So , precaution is always warranted . And it is definitely good thing , to have such watchdogs or alike " sniffing " all around constantly .


Posted by: El roam | Jul 17, 2018 11:18:20 AM

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