Antivaccine Rhetoric vs. History

Tonight, Mayer Eisenstein hosted a webinar (shudder) about vaccines. Ostensibly, the online event was to tell people how to write vaccine exemption letters. It was a Cirque du Soleil-sized extravaganza of clownishly sloppy logic and at-best-half-truths. I’ve watched some webinars before, and they are simply online Powerpoint presentations with audio. We see the speaker’s screen while they talk, and there is usually a chat room where the audience can interact. I have no idea how well attended Eisenstein’s event was, but it lasted for an hour and ended with about a 10-minute sales pitch for his miracle cure, Vitamin D, and his books.

The basic argument that Eisenstein was pushing was “use the religious protections provided by the First Amendment to justify vaccine exemption,” a cynical use of religion if I have ever seen one (and I’ve seen several). I thought that I would see how cynical he could possibly be, so in the chat room I asked, “Is there an option for atheists to claim religious objections?” Heehee.

His answer?

“I think all lawyers are atheists so [unintelligble] when they get in front of a jury they say, ‘I pray that the jury gives a verdict for me.’  Oh, or ‘I religiously believe that I believe this person is negligent or guilty.’ So I had a lawyer tell me that he felt the religious exemption had nothing to do with the belief in God, that a personal, specific religious belief–if you look up the word ‘religious,’ it’s very closely held position, uh, believing that there is some higher order or higher power, and you know, I think it’s close enough. If it’s not close enough for you, well, I’m not sure how you would go about it. Even if there’s a belief that there’s a natural order in the universe, that in itself is a religion. Don’t take the word religion to be so narrowly defined. Take a more, ah, expansive position.”

You could look at this answer in a couple of ways. The first way to see it as a string of loosely connected statements of a person on their way out, and while that is tempting, we do far more damage to the cause of public health when we underestimate our ideological adversaries. Even this guy.

But if you look at the underlying logical structure of that first part, he seems to be saying, “Well, atheist lawyers often pretend like they have religion to appeal to juries. Wink wink, nudge nudge.”

I am also bemused by the way he went straight to “negligent,” as his medical practice, according to the Chicago Tribune

“was on the losing side of one of the largest U.S. jury verdicts — $30 million — ever awarded to the family of a newborn in a wrongful-death suit.”

Anyway, then he tries on another fundamentally cockamamie argument, that “religion” doesn’t really mean “religion.” It really just means, “closely guarded belief.” This, of course, inflates the meaning of the word “religion” to almost complete uselessness: “Even if there’s a belief that there’s a natural order in the universe, that in itself is a religion.” Yeah, only if you are an intelligent design advocate, bucko. So sayeth the courts.

Despite his willingness to see the First Amendment misapplied, he did make some rather staggering comments that do fall directly under the purview of this new skeptical humanities site. He made a rather large claim when someone asked a question about diseases like polio:

“Well, that opens up a big can of worms. Because, I don’t want anyone to leave tonight saying Mayer Eisenstein isn’t worried about, uh, diseases. I’m more worried about…most doctors will scare you with the disease, I’m going to scare you with the side effects.”

Yeah, he actually said that. I know.

“We now know that we have had thousands and thousands of people die from contamination of the, of the, uh, polio vaccine. The polio vaccine, many of the doses were contaminated with SV40 virus, and I talk about it in my book, Making an Informed Vaccine Decision. […] Polio died out in Europe even in countries that didn’t give the polio vaccine, and the big push for the polio vaccine came with President Franklin Roosevelt who allegedly got polio as an adult. Allegedly. I’ve read some very credible reports that, um, he most probably had Guillain-Barré from the, um, Guillain-Barré from the flu vaccine, because, I don’t, I can’t remember, another adult who got polio. I’ve never seen it in almost 40 years in medicine. Now you know I came in a little bit after the adult era, but I should have seen, especially 35 and 40 years ago adults who contracted polio.”

Then he prattles on about what’s in vaccines, as if it helped his case.

Many of the assertions in this especially densely-packed drivel are historical questions. Take, for instance, his statement about the SV40 virus. According to the CDC, the Simian Virus was found in kidney cells of rhesus monkeys, which (I’m supposing) were used as a growth medium for attenuated polio virus in early polio vaccine. Quoth the CDC:

“More than 98 million Americans received one or more doses of polio vaccine during the period (1955–1963) when some of the vaccine was contaminated with SV40. SV40 has been found in certain types of human cancers, but it has not been determined that SV40 causes these cancers. The majority of evidence suggests there is no causal relationship between receipt of SV40-contaminated vaccine and cancer; however, some research results are conflicting and more studies are needed.”

Further, the contaminated strains have been yanked, and there has been no SV40 in polio vaccines since the early 1960s. I don’t know how he can say that deaths were caused by the presence of the virus in vaccines. Does he have access to research that the CDC doesn’t? Swing and a miss, Mayer.

The likelihood that a younger Mayer Eisenstein would likely have encountered a case of polio in the 1970s is also one that can be clarified by looking at history, again provided by the CDC:

There were usually about 13,000 to 20,000 cases of paralytic polio reported each year in the US before the introduction of Salk inactivated polio vaccine (IPV) in 1955. Polio peaked in 1952 when there were more than 21,000 reported cases. The number of cases of polio decreased dramatically following introduction of the vaccine and the development of a national vaccination program. In 1965, only 61 cases of paralytic polio were reported compared to 2,525 cases reported cases just five years earlier in 1960.

By the time Eisenstein graduated from short pants, the cases of paralytic polio were down to 61. The chances that he would have seen polio in the 1970s as a med student are vanishingly small. One interesting side note, Eisenstein mentioned over the course of the webinar that Amish kids don’t get autism, and he says it is because they don’t get vaccines. But they sure as hell got polio, as an Amish community hosted the last natural outbreak of polio in the US in 1979.  Strike two. No batter, no batter.

By far, my favorite assertion by Mayer was that FDR did not suffer from polio but Guillain-Barré syndrome brought on by flu vaccine.

I have access to a truly fantastic set of databases that I use in my research almost constantly. A source does exist that discusses the of FDR having Guilain-Barre, an article from 2003 in the Journal of Medical Biography by Armond Goldman, which according to the abstract:

“Posits that the conditions around the diagnosis of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s illness indicate that he likely suffered from Guillain-Barré syndrome, an autoimmune polyneuritis, rather than paralytic poliomyelitis.”

So, we have a retrospective study based on available historical documents at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, Hyde Park, New York, and the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. It’s possible, I imagine. However, I looked at 5 cross-disciplinary databases looking for “Roosevelt and Guillain-Barré” and found that all of the mentions of the hypothesis in the press were references to Goldman’s article. So, it’s nothing like the consensus view at this point. (I have ordered the article, however, and look forward to seeing it.)

We can, however, use history to completely demolish the boneheaded assertion that FDR got…whatever he had… from a flu vaccine, as he fell ill in August 1921. The first experimental influenza vaccine was developed in 1936, according to Stanley A. Plotkin, Walter A. Orenstein, and Paul A. Offit. Strike three, big guy. YEEEEEEEROUT!

History spanks cranky antivaxxers.


A note: I did subsequently find another reference to an article from the Journal of Medical Biography that suggests that Roosevelt may not have had polio (top of list), but diagnostically, I am told, we would need to see his spinal fluid to get a final answer about what caused his paralysis. Good luck with that.

3 Responses to Antivaccine Rhetoric vs. History

  1. Liz Ditz says:

    My deep, deep thanks to you for sitting through the webinar.

    You may want to read Paul Offit’s new book,Deadly Choices (interview at Science Friday and Seth Mnookin’s new book, The Panic Virus — too many interviews to list.

    You mention that Eisenstein claims

    One interesting side note, Eisenstein mentioned over the course of the webinar that Amish kids don’t get autism, and he says it is because they don’t get vaccines.

    That’s known as the Amish fallacy.

    It has been debunked endlessly since Dan Olmstead dreamed up the idea that the Amish don’t vaccinate and don’t have autism. From from Autism News Beat in January 2008:

    Olmsted’s anecdotal evidence is cited ad nauseum as evidence that thimerosal causes autism. The case rests on twin assumptions: that the Amish don’t vaccinate, and that they don’t have autism. But Olmsted never visited the cryptically-named Clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, where doctors treat dozens of children who exhibit autistic behavior. It’s not even necessary to visit the clinic. A simple phone call to a staff physician, such as the one I made recently, is enough to debunk “the Amish anomaly”, as Olmsted calls it.

    “The idea that the Amish do not vaccinate their children is untrue,” says Dr. Kevin Strauss, MD, a pediatrician at the CSC. “We run a weekly vaccination clinic and it’s very busy.” He says Amish vaccinations rates are lower than the general population’s, but younger Amish are more likely to be vaccinated than older generations.

    Strauss also sees plenty of Amish children showing symptoms of autism. “Autism isn’t a diagnosis – it’s a description of behavior. We see autistic behaviors along with seizure disorders or mental retardation or a genetic disorder, where the autism is part of a more complicated clinical spectrum.” Fragile X syndrome and Rett Syndrome is also common among the clinic’s patients.

  2. Liz Ditz says:

    sorry, I seemed to have buggered up the closing html.

  3. Bob says:

    It’s OK. I think that your interpretation of html adds character. 😉

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