A move away from anti-vaccine propaganda at the Huffington Post?

May 3rd, 2011 → 12:45 pm @ // No Comments

Almost three months ago, a writer named David Kirby wrote a 3,800-word piece for The Huffington Post titled “The Autism-Vaccine Debate: Why It Won’t Go Away.” It was not an impressive piece of reporting. As I wrote in Scientific American at the time,

By obscuring the difference between anecdotes and evidence, fomenting unfounded fears, and disguising tendentious tracts as objective analyses, he might be influencing public opinion, but he’s not helping the search for verifiable truth.

I was not the only person who came away from Kirby’s piece dismayed. At Forbes, Matthew Herper expressed amazement that Kirby’s piece had gone through the what The Huffington Post‘s senior health editor, Alana B. Elias Kornfeld, termed “vetting” by a medical review board, and at Respectful Insolence, Orac unpacked how the piece marked “the resurrection of David Kirby as an anti-vaccine propagandist.”

Indeed, after spending the better part of year focusing about food safety issues, Kirby seemed to have signaled a renewed commitment to keep this issue alive, regardless of the supporting evidence (or lack thereof), or the consequences of his obfuscations; in fact, at the end of the piece, Kirby promised that it was merely “part one of a two-part series.”

As the weeks went by, I kept waiting for Kirby’s further explanation of why the autism-vaccine “debate” won’t disappear. It appears that shoe has finally dropped in the form of a piece titled “Government and Many Scientists Agree: Vaccine-Autism Research Should Continue.” Kirby’s latest effort isn’t an article as much as it a list of quotes and journal articles; in fact, he’s used variations of this same list in previous Huffington Post contributions. (The list includes studies from places like Folia Neuropathologica, which is “the official journal of the Polish Association of Neuropathologists.” It is also cites studies such as one that examined the “plasma fatty acids” of 26 Saudi Arabian children with autism and another that draws conclusions from a comparison of nine children with autism with 1,258 children without an autism diagnosis.)

The contents of Kirby’s compilation of “evidence” isn’t surprising; what did get my attention is where the piece appeared: On Kirby’s own web-site and not on The Huffington Post. Over the years, Kirby has practically made this subject his HuffPo beat: plug in “Kirby autism vaccines” into the site’s search engine and you get 5,120 results. Is it possible that Kirby’s jeremiads have even become too dogmatic for a site with a long history of publishing dangerously ignorant dreck?

UPDATE, MAY 5, 3:30 PM: Unfortunately, it looks like my optimism was misplaced.

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20 Comments → “A move away from anti-vaccine propaganda at the Huffington Post?”

  1. jre

    13 years ago

    Hard to say. HuffPo’ style in flogging the vaccine non-story has always had a bit of the Weekly World News about it, so it seems safe to assume that no one on its editorial board is going to lose any sleep over the fact that somebody at Forbes thinks their piece is fact-challenged. On the other hand, the non-storyness of it all has the potential to lose readership, and any indications of that happening will get the attention of the honchos.

    Something similar seems to have happened to Bill Maher, who left off the anti-vaccine campaigning after becoming a bit of a joke (and not in a good sense) from, among other things, being schooled by the likes of Bill Frist.

    The vaccine-autism sideshow is drawing to a long, slow close, now that the rubes have figured out that they don’t really have Bigfoot inside the tent. A few lucky carnies like Kirby, McCarthy, Olmsted and RFK Jr. made a good thing of it for a while, but they’re pulling out one by one. The impresarios, like HuffPo and Maher, can count the ticket sales as well as anyone. In time, only a handful of sincere but lonely barkers will be left.


  2. Twyla

    13 years ago

    Mike Adams of Natural News says, “There is a tremendous amount of concern reverberating across the ‘net that the HuffPost acquisition by AOL will turn the site into just another conformist, watered-down corporate mouthpiece.” That sure would be a shame. Are we moving towards an Orwellian 1984 kind of world where Big Pharma (instead of “Big Brother”) controls all news?

    David Kirby is not an “anti-vaccine propagandaist”. He is an excellent, intelligent, objective, careful, and very well informed writer. In the article linked to above he says that not vaccinating at all is “an unwise and dangerous choice in my opinion,” and he says, “Parents who say the vaccine-autism link has not been debunked are, like me, hardly ‘anti-vaccine.’ Why on earth would anyone not want to protect children from dangerous diseases? That is the epithet hurled upon most of them anyway. And it’s what people will say about me as well, even though, as I said, I think parents should vaccinate their kids.”

    Talk about propaganda! The constant use of terms such as “anti-vaccine” and “anti-vaxers” is propaganda. Yes, some people are truly against vaccines, but David Kirby isn’t one of them. None of the large autism advocacy organizations are “anti-vaccine”. People who work to prevent car accidents and plane crashes and salmonella contamination in greens are not anti-car, anti-airplane, anti-spinach, nor anti-lettuce. “Anti-vaccine” is an attempt to avoid valid criticism and discussion of real problems by presenting the only two options as All-Vaccines-Exactly-as-They-Are or No-Vaccines.

    The fact is, sometimes vaccines cause autism. We know that from cases such as Hannah Poling, Bailey Banks, and Elias Tembenis. We need to understand a lot better how and why this happens, who is susceptible, how these reactions can be prevented, and how they can be treated. That is not anti-vaccine. That is good medical practice — identifying and understanding complications from invasive medical procedures.

    jre says, “The vaccine-autism sideshow is drawing to a long, slow close…” But if we continue on the current course, there will be no closure, because more and more parents will see their children’s vaccine-induced autism, and some of those children are bound to have famous or powerful parents — scientists, doctors, politicians, celebrities, and journalists — as well as commonfolk — who will not let go of this issue. As Mark Blaxill said at the 4/11 IACC meeting, “The only thing it does not require is that you wade through the complex machinations of denial because the problem is simple and staring you in the face. We are staring you in the face. And because autism is what it is, we will be standing in front of you until we are gone, or until you have done the right thing, whichever comes first.”


  3. Twyla

    13 years ago

    P.S. When I said, “In the article linked to above…” I meant the first article linked to in Seth’s article (by DK).


  4. JB Handley

    13 years ago

    Hi Seth:

    In an effort to keep things civil, I am interested to understand how you reconcile these court decisions Twyla refers to with your assertions regarding vaccines. Here’s a quote from the Hannah Poling decision to trigger your memory:

    Dr. Andrew Zimmerman, a pediatric neurologist, evaluated Hannah at the Kennedy Krieger Children’s Hospital Neurology Clinic (“Krieger Institute”), on February 8, 2001. Dr. Zimmerman reported that after Hannah’s immunizations of July 19, 2000, an “encephalopathy progressed to persistent loss of previously acquired language, eye contact, and relatedness.” He noted a disruption in Hannah’s sleep patterns, persistent screaming and arching, the development of pica to foreign objects, and loose stools. Dr. Zimmerman observed that Hannah watched the fluorescent lights repeatedly during the examination and would not make eye contact. He diagnosed Hannah with “regressive encephalopathy with features consistent with an autistic spectrum disorder, following normal development.” Dr. Zimmerman ordered genetic testing, a magnetic resonance imaging test (“MRI”), and an electroencephalogram (“EEG”).


  5. JB Handley

    13 years ago

    Seth, here’s another quote I’d welcome your response to:

    “University of Pennsylvania’s Dr. Brian Strom, who has served on Institute of Medicine panels advising the government on vaccine safety says the prevailing medical opinion is that vaccines are scientifically linked to encephalopathy (brain damage), but not scientifically linked to autism.”

    Does that make sense to you? Vaccines can cause brain damage, but not autism, even though kids with autism have brain damage? Just curious how your Harvard brain thinks about that, JB


  6. JB Handley

    13 years ago

    Seth Mnookin vs. Dr. Bernadine Healy, who should parents believe?

    Seth: Says the science has been done, vaccines don’t cause autism, and Kirby should be censored.

    Dr. BErnadine Healy:

    “We have to take another look at that hypothesis, not deny it. I think we have the tools today that we didn’t have 10 years ago, 20 yrs ago, to try and tease that out and find out if there is a susceptible group…A susceptible group does not mean that vaccines are not good. What a susceptible group will tell us is that maybe there is a group of individual who shouldn’t have a particular vaccine or shouldn’t have vaccines on the same schedule…I don’t believe that if we identify the susceptibility group, if we identify a particular risk factor for vaccines or if we found out that maybe they should be spread out a little longer, I do not believe that the public would lose faith in vaccines…

    I think that the government or certain public officials in the government have been too quick to dismiss the concerns of these families without studying the population that got sick…I haven’t seen major studies that focus on 300 kids who got autistic symptoms within a period of a few weeks of a vaccine…I think public health officials have been too quick to dismiss the hypothesis as irrational without sufficient studies of causation…I think they have been too quick to dismiss studies in the animal laboratory either in mice, in primates, that do show some concerns with regard to certain vaccines and also to the mercury preservative in vaccines…The reason why they didn’t want to look for those susceptibility groups was because they were afraid that if they found them, however big or small they were, that that would scare the public…I don’t think you should ever turn your back on any scientific hypothesis because you’re afraid of what it might show…

    Populations do not test causality, they test associations. You have to go into the laboratory and you have to do designed research studies in animals…The fact that there is concern that you don’t want to know that susceptible group is a real disappointment to me. You can save those children…The more you delve into it, if you look at the basic science, if you look at the research that’s been done on animals.

    If you also look at some of these individual cases and if you look at the evidence that there is no link what I come away with is the question has not been answered.”


  7. Ginger Taylor

    13 years ago

    Following JB’s line of questioning, I am interested in your thoughts on the admission of David Bowman at HRSA (who runs VICP) that vaccines can cause encephalopathy that causes autism as reported by David Kirby.

    Following the Poling vaccine concession, Kirby wrote to HRSA and asked if this now meant that the VICP was now paying for vaccine induced autism. This the “official statement” that HRSA sent him:

    “From: Bowman, David (HRSA) [mailto:DBowman@hrsa.gov]
    Sent: Friday, February 20, 2009 5:22 PM
    To: ‘dkirby@nyc.rr.com’
    Subject: HRSA Statement


    In response to your most recent inquiry, HRSA has the following

    The government has never compensated, nor has it ever been ordered to
    compensate, any case based on a determination that autism was actually
    caused by vaccines. We have compensated cases in which children
    exhibited an encephalopathy, or general brain disease. Encephalopathy
    may be accompanied by a medical progression of an array of symptoms
    including autistic behavior, autism, or seizures.

    Some children who have been compensated for vaccine injuries may have
    shown signs of autism before the decision to compensate, or may
    ultimately end up with autism or autistic symptoms, but we do not track
    cases on this basis.


    David Bowman
    Office of Communications
    Health Resources and Services Administration

    Is this not a very significant disclosure by HHS and in conflict with many of their public statements of autism causation? HHS has admitted that vaccines can cause brain damage that becomes “autistic behavior, autism, or seizures”. Rather than question HHS on this and ask how they made that determination, and how many autism cases they have compensated, you want David Kirby not to be able to have a public forum to ask questions any more?

    How is that journalism? How does this not show that you are simply bias and want those who might punch holes in your high praise of the vaccine program shut down?

    And when there are so few voices attempting to keep HHS honest on vaccine injury, do you not think that it is a serious problem when outlets begin to censor those voices? How then will corruption in the vaccine program be prevented from taking hold? Is the vaccine program above suspicious when we know the same companies and public health officials are suspect in other product lines and policies? By what magical process are vaccines exempt from critical review and media scrutiny? Merck lies about Vioxx, is fined more than 400 million dollars for Medicaid fraud, but their MMR and other vaccines is perfect at all times, Merck would never lie about vaccine safety and should not be questioned or reviewed?

    CDC employees steal hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical and computer equipment from their own building, but all their vaccine statements are honest and should never be questioned?

    As a journalist, do you support the suppression and censorship of accurate information offered by earnest reporters?

    If the vaccine program is truly with out corruption and is somehow exactly flawless in its operation and policy, how long do you think that will last if media outlets

    There were 24 doses of vaccine on the schedule when we were children, now there are 70 and two more will be added shortly. With no oversight from the courts due to Bruesewitz and with the media unable to question vaccine policy, what prevents multinational corporations from purchasing public health agencies and getting 100 doses of vaccine on the childhood schedule? How many is too many? 150? Are we allowed to talk about this in the media?

    And you think it is a GOOD thing if media outlets stop reviewing vaccine policy for potential damage to children?

    Vaccines are pharmaceuticals like any other, their production and use are subject to media review like any other. Why do you celebrate the repression of media scrutable that can only serve to make sure the vaccine program is as safe as possible?


  8. Big Tobacco Opponet

    13 years ago

    Is Bernadette Healy still arguing that tobacco doesn’t cause cancer, or is she making more money on the autism-vaccine scam?


  9. Andrew

    13 years ago


    You’re probably right – now that parents like me can read all the facts, it’s becoming easier for us to recognize the truth. Open forums like this ones, where anti-vaccine activists are free to post, stand in stark contrast with the closed forums that promote only one side of the argument, and parents can recognize the difference.


  10. Moderation

    13 years ago

    Mr. Handley, you are either dishonest or woefully uniformed when it comes to the Hannah Poling case. Hannah was never diagnosed with autism. And I certainly don’t think you have the requisite expertise to be making a diagnosis yourself. Encephalopathy is not autism. You need to take a basic class in logic.

    You hold up Dr. Healy as an expert against Mr. Mnookin due to the fact she is a physician and then convienently disregard the overwhelming number of physicians who read the evidence the same way as Mr. Mnookin.


  11. Twyla

    13 years ago

    @ Moderation — Hannah Poling was diagnosed with autism.

    NY Times “in 2001 she was given a diagnosis of autism”

    Her aunt, Margaret Dunkle, Director of The Early Identification and Intervention Collaborative for Los Angeles County, wrote “In fact, Hannah Poling has a DSM-IV diagnosis of autism.”

    Jon Poling wrote, “The Childhood Autism Rating Scale (CARS) score was 33 (mild autism range), and she also met Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders-IV criteria for autism.”

    Dr. Healy is not only a physician, but former head of the NIH. “In addition to her various administrative positions, Dr. Healy has continued to treat patients during much of her career. Her research has led to deeper understanding of the pathology and treatment of heart attacks, especially in women. An author as well as a policymaker and manager, Dr. Healy has written or co-authored more than 220 peer-reviewed manuscripts on cardiovascular research and health and science policy.”

    JB Handley is neither dishonest nor woefully uniformed.


  12. Ginger Taylor

    13 years ago

    Since you won’t post my comments here, I have posted them on my blog. Along with your false report of the premature death of David Kirby.

    I hope that you will reconsider your approach to this topic, as your writing and behavior can only do damage to both children who will needlessly go unvaccinated because of the trust in the vaccine program you are further destroying with your work, and who are at risk for serious vaccine injury and will be vaccinated aggressively none the less because parents listened to your biased and badly researched opinions.



  13. JB Handley

    13 years ago

    Moderation writes:

    Hannah was never diagnosed with autism

    JB says:

    That’s a lie. Sorry, bro. Maybe you should talk to the Polings, as I have.



  14. JB Handley

    13 years ago

    Um, Seth, HuffPo just posted a David Kirby article. I guess the reports of his death were somewhat exaggerated?

    By you.


  15. John Stone

    13 years ago


  16. Richids Coulter

    13 years ago

    Another woefully misinformed article by Seth Mnookin.


  17. dugmaze

    13 years ago

    I believe this author is riding the wake of more notable authors. After searching through his articles, all I see are attack pieces.
    If Mr Mnookin knows so much more about the causes, treatments, and cures of autism than Mr Kirby, then why doesn’t Mr Mnookin offer his expertise? Parents are more than willing to listen. After all, we are labeled desperate but intelligent.


  18. Laurette Janak

    13 years ago

    I am thankful for David Kirby’s continued writings about the facts, the science and the politics involved in the vaccine autism link. Keep up the good work David. I am also thankful for the parents and scientists who have brought into light some of the safety issues revolving around our ever expanding vaccine schedule. It is precisely these individual who are responsible for the push for safer vaccines for all children including children of those people like Seth who appear to be anti-vaccine-safety. This is not my opinion but rather a statement of fact as documented in the medical literature. Adversomics is the study of genetically determined vaccine associated adverse events. So yes Seth, there are genetically susceptible children. It appears to me that you are not staying current on the medical literature so let me help you out by giving you a quote from Pediatr Infect Dis J. 2009 May; 28(5):431-432.

    “…the field of adversomics is growing due to scientific interest in understanding the basis for vaccine reactions, “push” from the growing field of individualized medicine, and consumer demand for safer vaccines.”

    I think that quote says it all. If the safety issues are not addressed and continue to be minimized, or worse yet, completely overlooked by the media and people like Seth and Paul Offit, then it is exactly those people who will be responsible for the downfall of the vaccination program! Seth you should be thankful for people like David Kirby.


  19. Ginger Taylor

    13 years ago

    If there was any question that you are not a real journalist, I think this answers it.

    When the White House decided it was going to give interviews to CBS, ABC, NBC and CNN, while cutting out Fox News, the other four networks refused to participate in the press event unless Fox was included. Those networks do not like Fox and they are regularly beat in the ratings by Fox, but they backed Fox, which they hate, over a President, who they love, because they understand that censorship is the worst enemy of journalism and a free society. They knew how dangerous the precedent was that the White House was attempting to set, and they did not allow them to do it.

    They practiced real journalism.


  20. Anthony

    2 years ago


    Ten years on, do you ever get apologies from the liars and creeps who’ve attacked you for protecting childrens’ health and well-being – or are they still wallowing in the mire of their own sick imaginations, creating “artwork” about abused children, and lying about the parents, scientists and journalists who are stuck with the job of correcting them?

    Just curious,



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