Earlier this morning, Jay Gordon, who is perhaps best known as the pediatrician who supported Jenny McCarthy in her belief that the MMR vaccine had contributed to her son’s autism, posted the following tweet:
It’s an obvious story for Gordon to point out: He’s not only a pediatrician, but an active proponent of attachment parenting and the importance of breast-feeding. As the father of a thirteen-month old boy and the husband of a wife who still breastfeeds twice a day, I, too, am aware of the benefits of breastfeeding on both infants and mothers. The problem is, the Reuters Health story Gordon links to doesn’t say what Gordon claims it says. If anything, it contains the opposite message:
All infant formulas may not be equal when it comes to babies’ weight gain over their first months of life, a new study finds.
In a study that followed 56 formula-fed infants, researchers found that babies on hypoallergenic formula stayed close to the “normal” weight-gain pattern seen among breastfed infants, while those on standard formula packed on pounds more quickly.
Gordon’s misrepresentation is troubling to me for two reasons. First, by overemphasizing the risks of infant formula, Gordon unnecessarily adds to the guilt of mothers who aren’t able to submit to what is only half-jokingly referred to in our household as the tyranny of breastfeeding. My wife and I have been lucky: Our families have been able to help us out and she’s been able to work at home for much of the past year, which has given her the freedom to schedule her days around our son’s mealtimes. Many families don’t have that luxury: A single mom without maternity leave isn’t going to be able to be with her child 24-hours-a-day…and there’s a good chance she won’t be able to pump four or five times a day, either. The fact that new research indicates that some formulas appear to be healthier than others is wonderful news for those mothers.
The second is that Gordon is exemplifying a disturbing trend, and one which is one of the themes of The Panic Virus: The tendency of people to blur the boundaries between facts and opinions until they disappear completely. There’s a special irony here in light of the tweet Gordon posted several minutes later:
Here Gordon is referring to an Age of Autism piece about Paul Offit, the author of the new book Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All. In that 1,400-word post, Dan Olmsted, one of the main proponents of the Amish don’t vaccinate and therefore don’t get autism fallacy (neither statement is accurate), writes that Offit displays a “solipsism that is quite breathtaking” and that his book is nothing but a “score-settling screed.”
Now, someone who only read Olmsted’s take would likely come away thinking that Offit does not, as Gordon claims, “act like a scientist much of the time.” People who’ve actually spent the time to research the issue–and I’ve done nothing but for the past two-plus years–know this is the opposite of the truth: While Offit is without question one of the most outspoken vaccine proponents in the country, he’s also not shy about pointing out instances when he thinks vaccines were used improperly. One example can be found in an essay he wrote several years ago titled “The Risk of Being Averse“:
In March 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, the Department of Defense feared a biological counterattack with smallpox. So they inoculated soldiers with the smallpox vaccine; 40,000 healthcare workers were also immunized. Since December 2002 about 1.2 million people have been immunized with a vaccine to prevent a disease that was eliminated from the face of the earth in 1979. And unlike the prevention of many infectious diseases, smallpox vaccine works even when it is given 48 hours after exposure to someone with smallpox, a disease whose symptoms aren’t subtle. We could have distributed the vaccine, made sure that systems were in place to give it quickly and efficiently, and waited. But we didn’t. As a consequence, about 140 people were harmed when the vaccine virus caused inflammation of their heart muscle. Getting smallpox vaccine was riskier than waiting to get it.
Another example is The Cutter Incident, which is an entire book about the worst lapse of vaccine safety in the country’s history.
As the deaths of ten children in the recent whooping cough outbreak in California demonstrate (pdf link to California Department of Public Health report), the issue of vaccine safety and vaccination rates is one of the most important public health issues facing the country today. There are valid debates to be had–regarding compliance, risk, communication, outreach–and everyone would be better served if the most outspoken partisans on both sides found a way to have a rational discussion. Misrepresenting scientific studies and name-calling are not steps in the right direction.