During the Q&A, I’d wanted to ask Wakefield what vaccines he was in favor of giving to infants as it’s clear that many of his supporters are far more anti-vaccine than he professes to be but someone asked a similar question first. When I finally did ask a question, I simply asked for clarification about the studies he claimed supported his research. At times during the Q&A, it seemed as though Wakefield was among the least insane in the room. But his answers were so slick as to somehow appease both less fanatical anti-vaccinationists as well as those who believe vaccines have no benefits at all and are used to deliberate poison the populous.
But after feeling like the only Jew sitting in on a Klan meeting all night, I discovered I wasn’t alone. The final question Wakefield fielded came from Elie Dolgin, a writer for the blog Spoonful of Medicine, hosted by Nature.com. He actually asked a series of questions. First, given how he’d lost his license, did Wakefield have any regrets. After asserting that he hadn’t yet lost his license because he was appealing the case, Wakefield answered:
Any regrets? [long pause] No. I don’t think so.
He says he’s not the kind of person who looks back.
You come to a crossroads and you have a decision to make. You either go with the parents story or you say, I’m really sorry. What you say makes sense but…”
And you make those decisions and there’s not point in looking back. Now I don’t mean that to sound arrogant. I don’t mean it in an arrogant way.
Dolgin continued, first calling back Wakefield’s safety first position and then pointing out that we know vaccines save lives. He then asked, “So what would you say to the parents of the children who have died because their classmates didn’t get vaccinated?” Wakefield called it a good question and then proceeded to evade answering it. Dolgin didn’t back down though. He reminded Wakefield that he had implicated the MMR even though he still contends to not know if it causes autism. Wakefield shot back that that doesn’t make him anti-vaccine, to which Dolgin responded, “No, but you’ve become in some ways the voice of the anti-vaccine movement–” It was at that moment that an uproar broke out. I distinctly heard one woman a few feet away from me mutter, “Does he work for Merck?” The slightest semblance of dissent and the “Big Pharma Shill” gambit comes out. When the crowd was settled down a little bit, Wakefield answered, “I am pro-vaccine. I am pro-safe vaccines,” insisting that Dolgin had being taken in by propaganda that he’s anti-vaccine and that “people have been sold a big fat lie.” The lecture was officially declared over after a woman in the crowd shouted, “And also how could a child die if someone else’s child doesn’t vaccinate? If they were vaccinated?” And that pretty much perfectly sums up how educational a lecture by Andrew Wakefield about vaccines really is.
Afterward, I saw the only other non-member of the cult of Wakefield talking to the woman from DAN! I went over to listen and jump into the conversation. She was trying to convince him that his enormous wealth of knowledge on the issue was wrong and that his having been unfamiliar with DAN! and having never attending one of their conferences was “the problem.” She said her child regressed after receiving vaccines. Dolgin asked, how she went from that to the position that people shouldn’t vaccinate. Her answer was that the pharmaceutical studies were bought and paid for, and therefore invalid. So he pointed out that he got the vaccine and is fine. He said correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation. This drove her to change the subject to the adjuvents in the vaccines. The woman from DAN! insisted that nobody is saying it’s a conspiracy and that, “Nobody’s looking at it as vaccines are all bad.” Then proceeded to flat-out denial of the existence of any genetic component for autism. I inserted myself into the conversation by pointing out we’ve definitely found at least 200 autism genes, she asserted that they’re probably connected to Fragile X and similar disorders, but not autism. And those diseases don’t matter to her because, “Nobody I know has any of those diseases.”
Me: But there are kids who have them.
Woman from DAN!: Well good luck to them. But I have yet to meet one child that has these.
Dolgin got into more facts with her. He tried to show her the problem with discouraging vaccination when even Andrew Wakefield says he doesn’t know for sure vaccines are even the problem. The woman from DAN! continued to not give an inch though.
The following is a rough transcript of some of the exchange that took place after the lecture that should demonstrate effectively whether a meaningful conversation can be had between those promoting good science and the anti-vaccine community. Not everything is absolutely verbatim but most is or very, very close to it:
Woman from DAN!: We’re not anti-vaccine.
Elie Dolgin: But that’s the message that’s getting out there.
Woman from DAN!: No it’s not.
Elie Dolgin: You don’t think so?!
Woman from DAN!: Did you hear anyone in here say they were anti-vaccine?
Me: I didn’t hear Wakefield recommend any.
Woman from DAN!: I don’t think it’s his job to decide if people should get vaccines.
Me: Well it’s not his job NOW!
Woman from DAN!: I don’t think people should decide for others.
Elie Dolgin: I agree.
After running around in circles, the woman from DAN! was relieved of duty by none other than Kim Stagliano from Age of Autism and her husband. Stagliano criticized epidemiological studies, proudly asserted that she has anecdotal evidence on her side, and insisted that we haven’t investigated vaccinated vs. unvaccinated populations. When Dolgin pointed out that she kept using the word “maybe” when asserting most of her claims, she insisted it’s because none of the important questions have been studied. She too insisted that the movement isn’t anti-vaccine, I asserted that their message then has snowballed and cited Sherri Tenpenny as a prime example of someone who flat-out condemns vaccines as pure evil and is very popular among Stagliano’s movement. I was interrupted then by her husband who said Dr. Paul Offit is paid by Merck. I tried to explain to him that it’s not a crime in the U.S. to make money from your job and that if he’s saving lives, I’d want him to profit.
Kim: We can spread it out. Herd immunity is great until your little kid is hurt.
Elie Dolgin: No, but I think it’s a shared responsibility. And vilifying Offit is not helpful.
Kim: Offit attacked the autism community. He’s not an autism expert.
Me: But he is a vaccine expert.
Kim: That’s right. But he doesn’t see patients, period. For him to go after the autism community?
Me: Does he have a choice though?
Elie Dolgin: But you’re setting it up as an autism parents vs. science.
Kim: But he set it up that way by attacking the autism community.
Me: But you attacked him first.
Kim: What does he care if a diet works or not? Why would that bother him?
Elie Dolgin: I think it has to do with people finding patterns.
Kim: Grant money’s going to genes. That’s not going to find the answer. I don’t want mercury in my baby.
Elie: But why attack vaccines?
Kim: That’s what we need to look at. It’s a very logical starting place.
Me: But when does the trail end? When do we say, if we look at it and it goes nowhere, that it’s not the vaccines?
Kim: I don’t know when that will be.
Mr. Stagliano: Nobody wants to do vaccine vs. unvaccine study.
Me: But we’ve done epidemiological–
Elie Dolgin: It seems like a lot of outspoken conspiracy theories.
Kim: It’s not a conspiracy and nobody’s saying that.
Elie: But they are. But when I ask a reasonable question I get heckled.
Kim: It’s the way you asked it. What we heard was, you are killing babies.
Me: But that’s not what he said.
Kim: If you are not vaccinating your child— The whooping cough epidemic is among the vaccinated. So if the loss of immunity–you make it sound like we’re a killer. You’re not going to get a positive reaction.
Elie Dolgin: I didn’t’ mean it to come out that way.
Kim: You can say what do you think is best for the safety of all the children. Do the unvaccinated affect the vaccinated. I think no because if your child is vaccinated—
Elie Dolgin: No, no. any expert will tell you about the herd immunity. It doesn’t work that way.
Kim: But the reality is if Jane is protected against 95% of MMR–
Elie Dolgin: That’s not how it works.
Kim: Of course it is. It’s in your body and you have the immunity. You have the antibodies against whooping cough.
Elie Dolgin: These are not 100% effective. There are epidemiological models of a thousand people.
Kim: I don’t want models of 1000 people. I want Jane and John standing together. Jane has been vaccinated.
Elie Dolgin: They’re all Jane and John.
Kim: We understand our children. Your mother understood you.
Me: But there’s thousands of Janes and Johns.
Elie Dolgin: It’s logic.
Kim: “We don’t want logic.”