It has been a challenging week for families living with the reality of autism and for those educating Americans about the need to institute vaccine safety and informed consent protections in public health programs. It was a week when individual extremists from the political right and the left revealed their capacity for ignorance and prejudice, even as many enlightened Americans demonstrated their capacity for understanding, concern and compassion. It was a week that ended with a revelation that the American Academy of Pediatrics, Every Child by Two and the pediatrician leading a national effort to eliminate exemptions to vaccination, Paul Offit, M.D., are all taking big money from big Pharma.
Several months ago when Unlocking Autism (UA) President Shelley Reynolds called me and asked if NVIC would join UA in mounting a major exhibit at the Netroots Nation progressive blogger conference in Austin, TX July 17-19, I knew it would be an opportunity to reach out to several thousand Americans blogging on important social and political issues. We worked hard to create a professional exhibit (the largest in the Exhibit Hall) that would include representatives from SAFEMINDS, TACA, and Age of Autism contributing information and helping to staff the booth.
The theme of our exhibit was "Vaccine Safety: What's Choice Got To Do With It?" and the buttons and t-shirts we wore said "Vaccines: Our Children. Our Choice. Our Vote" while the facts listed on the 16 foot high tower exhibit included "Vaccine Market: $21 Billion" and "Toxic Vaccine Ingredients" and "One-Size-Fits-All Vaccine Policies" and "No Vaccine Risk Research" and "Autism: 1 in 150 children; 1 in 94 boys; $3.2M per child" and "Giving Mercury to Children on Purpose Is Stupid." We were ready to answer questions from the more than 2,000 bloggers showing up to listen to Howard Dean, Nancy Pelosi, Al Gore and other speakers talk about issues important to Democrats as well as the nation.
While we were finishing setting up our exhibit on the morning of July 17, Shelley and I, along with Rebecca Estepp (TACA), Theresa Wrangham (SAFEMINDS), Kevin Barry, Paul Arthur (NVIC) and my son, Chris, started networking with other exhibitors. (Later we would be joined by Mark Blaxill from Age of Autism and attorney Jim Moody). The booth directly across from us was Media Matters.
As the bloggers came into the Exhibit Hall and walked by our booth, we handed out vaccine information. Suddenly, a middle-aged woman with a scowl on her face appeared and screamed "baby killer" at Becky but refused to engage in a conversation. Later we were told that several complaints had been lodged with the convention organizers (to which the organizers responded that Netroots Nation welcomed open dialogue on such an important health issue).
A few hours later we learned about the obscene tirade that conservative shock jock Michael Savage had let loose on children with autism and asthma. We had a conversation with our new blogger friends at the Media Matters booth, who were quite familiar with his rants.
By the end of the day, Media Matters, had set their blogger sights on Savage. Their quick action played a major role in galvanizing both the autism community and enlightened Americans from both sides of the political spectrum disgusted by the cruelty of mindless prejudice against children and families suffering with autism and asthma through no fault of their own. Big advertisers like Aflac, Radio Shack and Sears pulled their ads from Savage's nationally syndicated radio show. Radio stations in Virginia, Ohio, Mississippi and elsewhere canceled the show.
During the Netroots Nation convention, we were approached by many bloggers who either had a child with autism in their own family or knew a family living with autism. Pregnant women stopped by our exhibit to learn more about mercury in influenza vaccines. Others stopped by to describe vaccine reactions they or a loved one had suffered in the past. Several longtime NVIC members came up to greet us, grateful that we were there. My son, Chris, brought his camera and filmed my interviews with several bloggers and exhibitors expressing their opinions on topics such as vaccine mandates http://www.youtube.com/v/G_DHFWJpaxU
and diabetes and vaccination http://www.youtube.com/v/tMiWFlCqJ9E
On the last day of the convention, we put our brochures on the luncheon tables. During the final hour, the scowling woman reappeared to hurl one last hateful insult at us. This time she targeted my son, who has come so far in the 28 years since the neurological reaction to his fourth DPT shot that left him with multiple learning disabilities and ADD. She called Chris a "traitor" and shouted "where are your double blind studies?" and then, as he tried to bring me over to speak with her, she ran away shouting "I didn't think so!" before a conversation could take place.
The events of the past week reinforce the fact that ignorance and hate does not belong to any one political party or ideology. The extremists on the right and the left meet at a dangerous intersection which threatens freedom and diminishes the value of individual life.
And when doctors and organizations denying vaccine risks persuade naive public figures to demonize others for making independent vaccine choices, it contributes to an ugly climate of fear and divisiveness. When it turns out those same doctors and organizations get big money from drug companies selling vaccines, the public has no reason to trust what they say or tell us to do.
Vaccination is a subject that elicits emotional responses from both those promoting forced use of multiple vaccines and those defending the human right to informed consent to vaccination. It involves a personal examination of what we know, fear, believe and value because what we choose to do can profoundly affect the health and lives of those we love the most.
Many of the conversations taking place in private and public forums about vaccination are civil and, hopefully, most Americans will turn away from those letting fear, prejudice or greed define who they are. In any case, we should never let someone else define who we are or dictate what we can or cannot do when it comes to protecting the health of our children.
"What Michael Savage said was foolish, mean-spirited, and hurtful," said J. Jioni Palmer, spokesman for Media Matters. "It's unfortunate he would use his radio program to make fun of and belittle these kids. Instead of ridicule and cheap shots, the children suffering from autism and asthma and their families need support and compassion." During the July 16 edition of his show, Savage claimed that autism is "[a] fraud, a racket.... I'll tell you what autism is. In 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out. That's what autism is. What do you mean they scream and they're silent? They don't have a father around to tell them, 'Don't act like a moron. You'll get nowhere in life. Stop acting like a putz. Straighten up. Act like a man. Don't sit there crying and screaming, idiot.' Savage also stated: "[W]hy was there an asthma epidemic amongst minority children? Because I'll tell you why: The children got extra welfare if they were disabled, and they got extra help in school. It was a money racket. Everyone went in and was told [fake cough], "When the nurse looks at you, you go [fake cough], "I don't know, the dust got me." "See, everyone had asthma from the minority community." - Media Matters (July 18, 2008) http://mediamatters.org/items/200807180001
"Conservative radio talk show jock Michael Savage used his nationally syndicated show Monday to defend his controversial remarks on autism, even as outraged parents protested outside the Manhattan offices of his broadcaster, calling for his firing. "My comments about autism were meant to boldly awaken parents and children to the medical community's attempt to label too many children or adults as 'autistic,' Savage wrote on his Web site and read on his broadcast Monday. "Many children are being victimized by being diagnosed with an "illness" which may not exist in all cases. .....Let the truly autistic be treated. Let the falsely diagnosed be free.".....His controversial remarks drove several dozen parents and advocates Monday to protest outside WOR-710 in Manhattan. "That isn't just freedom of speech, it is hateful speech when you say 99 percent of children with autism are brats," said Evelyn Ain, whose 8-year-old son has been diagnosed with autism and who organized the demonstration. "I'll tell you, I wish I had a brat." - Carol Polsky, Newsday (June 21, 2008) http://www.newsday.com/news/nationworld/nation/am-sav0721,0,1239587.story
Eventually her brother-in-law arranged a series of phone calls between Peet and his own mentor, Paul Offit, M.D., who is chief of infectious diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, a co-inventor of the rotavirus vaccine, and a board member of Every Child by Two, a pro-vaccine organization co-founded in 1991 by former first lady Rosalynn Carter. "Once we had spoken, I was shocked at the amount of misinformation floating around, particularly in Hollywood," says Peet, who quickly boned up on the hot-button controversies surrounding the topic, including the unproven link between certain vaccines and autism; the safety of preservatives like mercury-based thimerosal; and the fear that the relatively high number of shots kids receive today can overwhelm young immune systems. Her conclusion? Well, not only is Frankie up-to-date on her vaccines (with no staggering), but her mom will soon appear in public-service announcements for Every Child by Two. "I buy 99 percent organic food for Frankie, and I don't like to give her medicine or put sunscreen on her," says Peet. "But now that I've done my research, vaccines do not concern me." What does concern her is the growing number of unvaccinated children who are benefiting from the "shield" created by the inoculated-we are protected from viruses only if everyone, or most everyone, is immunized: "Frankly, I feel that parents who don't vaccinate their children are parasites." - Jennifer Tung, Cookie Magazine (July 12, 2008) http://www.cookiemag.com/entertainment/2008/07/amandapeet
"The vaccine industry gives millions to the Academy of Pediatrics for conferences, grants, medical education classes and even helped build their headquarters. The totals are kept secret, but public documents reveal bits and pieces.....Every Child By Two, a group that promotes early immunization for all children, admits the group takes money from the vaccine industry, too - but wouldn't tell us how much. A spokesman told CBS News: "There are simply no conflicts to be unearthed." But guess who's listed as the group's treasurers? Officials from Wyeth and a paid advisor to big pharmaceutical clients..... Offit was not willing to be interviewed on this subject but like others in this CBS News investigation, he has strong industry ties. In fact, he's a vaccine industry insider. Offit holds in a $1.5 million dollar research chair at Children's Hospital, funded by Merck. He holds the patent on an anti-diarrhea vaccine he developed with Merck, Rotateq, which has prevented thousands of hospitalizations. And future royalties for the vaccine were just sold for $182 million cash. Dr. Offit's share of vaccine profits? Unknown." - Sharyl Attkisson, CBS-TV News (July 25, 2008) http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/07/25/cbsnews_investigates/main4296175.shtm