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CSIcon Preview: Deadly Choices

CSI Staff

September 9, 2011

Paul Offit

Paul Offit, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, is responsible for a vaccine that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But the co-inventor of RotaTeq, which guards against the deadly rotavirus, has been painted by the anti-vaccine movement as an anti-child puppet of Big Pharma for his public health advocacy and tireless battle to dispel dangerous myths about vaccines. Offit will give a lunch presentation at CSIcon in New Orleans on his new book, Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. Here, the recipient of the Jonas Salk Medal from the Association for Infection Control and Epidemiology explains the premise of the book and his current fight to save children from the fatal consequences of pseudoscience.

How would you characterize the anti-vaccine movement’s rhetoric? Is the narrative fear-based, religion-based, or based on alternative medicine and pseudoscience—or some combination of those?

It’s fear. The reason that it has taken hold is that for parents, vaccines are a perfect storm of fear. You have a child being pinned down against his will on a white sheet of paper, injected with as many as five vaccines at one time and up to twenty-six in the first few years. Parents don’t understand—they don’t see vaccine-preventable diseases, so they don’t fear them as much as the vaccine itself.

We are motivated by fears far more than reason. Fear is a much easier sell than science. Religion is a very small part. It’s also an easy sell that Big Pharma is evil. [People are] compelled by their fears and don’t fear the diseases. But as outbreaks begin to occur as a result of not vaccinating, you’ll start to see that change.

How can we address the problem of parents not trusting doctors? To play the devil’s advocate: It can be hard to trust pharmaceutical companies when we consider all the money to be made especially by, it seems, keeping people sick. Is distrust of the pharmaceutical industry completely unfounded, and what do you say to those who express it?

Well, first of all they’re not making that much money on vaccines. You take a vaccine once or twice in your life, as opposed to a medicine you take every day. I watched Merck develop the rotavirus vaccine, and I didn’t see any fraud there. Certainly pharmaceutical companies will promote the best of their product, but they don’t hide the studies. They can’t. It’s not just unethical, it’s bad business. You just have to look for the data—and most people don’t, so doctors need to compel people with it.

These are scientific issues. Children are dying from preventable diseases. I work in a hospital and have seen children die from bacterial meningitis and whooping cough. Physicians who are advocates need to be far more passionate. They need to be angry. And doctors have to be able to compel people with the data. Vaccines have stood the test of time in over twenty thousand studies over [the] last two centuries. We’re living longer because of them.

It’s good to be skeptical. It’s not okay to be cynical—that’s where the line gets crossed.

Visit Paul Offit’s website here. Register for CSIcon 2011 here.