Kaiser Health News: Asking Del Bigtree's opinion on vaccination policy is not "good journalism"

What are Del Bigtree and his widely-discredited "documentary," VAXXED, doing lurking in a Kaiser Health News (KHN) report on public health worries about falling Texas immunization rates? (For more criticism of VAXXED, see here, here, here, here, and here.) Did the reporter want to point out the Bigtree's misrepresentations about vaccination safety, so parents wouldn't be led astray? No. Did the reporter want to lay out the facts behind the "CDC whistleblower" manufactroversy, so the public wouldn't be misled into thinking there is really some government cover-up instead of cherry-picked evidence cobbled into a conspiracy theory by the over-active imaginations of anti-vaccinationists? No. Did the reporter want to detail the sordid history of defrocked British doctor and VAXXED star Andrew Wakefield, who now lives in Texas, so parents would have the facts when faced with his vicious lies? No.

The KHN reporter apparently thought the views of Bigtree, who lives in California, on Texas public health policy were of sufficient gravitas to ring him up and get his opinion. Why? Because Bigtree is a public health expert? No. He's a pediatrician or infectious disease doctor? No. He's a TV producer. Best I can tell, he's in the story because some reporters at KHN still believe it's imperative to "balance" the science of public health with the pseudoscience of anti-vaccination ideology.

The KHN story citing Bigtree's views reported on public health officials' growing concern over parents choosing to opt out of vaccinations for their children. (The news report was also published in the The Texas Tribune.)The story featured the Moore family, of Austin, Texas, who have gone to great lengths to protect daughter Georgia, diagnosed with leukemia at age 10. Because chemotherapy left her immune system compromised, she couldn't attend school for fear she might get sick from, among other things, vaccine-preventable diseases.

Fortunately, Georgia is now 16 and cancer-free. The family's experience has made Georgia's mom, Courtney, a strong advocate for vaccination, a passion she shares with Jinny Suh, the mother of a 4-year-old. Suh and other parents are pushing legislators to change state law so that individual public school exemption rates are published. Under current law, individual private and charter schools must make exemption rates public but public schools report this information by district only. At least two bills were introduced during the past legislative session to require individual schools to report their immunization rates, but neither passed. Other states do collect and publish this information. (See, e.g., California and Pennsylvania)

The private school statistics cited in the story are revealing: At Austin Waldorf School (no surprise there), which costs more than $13,000 annually, more than 40% of students are unvaccinated, the highest in Texas. Regents Academy, in East Texas, is second, at 38%.

According to the story, parents are increasingly taking advantage of the state's "conscientious exemption" to school immunization requirements, which have soared to 44,716 this year, from just 2,314 in 2003. (The story incorrectly states that Texas is one of 18 states allowing non-medical exemptions. Actually, three states permit medical exemptions only. The rest allow non-medical exemptions, both religious and "philosophical.")

While the state's overall immunization rate is high (98%), health officials worry about pockets of unimmunized children:

"'If one of those kids is incubating an infectious disease and the other kids aren't vaccinated, then it's going to spread like wildfire,' said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

"Troisi explains that for a disease like measles, you want 'herd immunity' to be at 95 percent to prevent an outbreak. If healthy children aren't receiving vaccines, they are putting children who are too young to receive the vaccine and people with compromised immune systems at a much greater risk of infection."

Why aren't parents protecting their children, and others, through immunization?

"Many of the parents opting out of the immunizations, which are widely recommended by doctors, say they fear a link between the vaccines and health problems such as autism. But studies that they cite have been widely debunked by public health officials."

The story also quoted the director of Texans for Vaccine Choice, a political action committee formed to oppose legislation repealing the state's non-medical exemptions from school immunization requirements. Her comments reflect the usual anti-vaccination dog whistles: "choice," "informed consent," "parental rights." But, fair enough, since opposition to repealing current exemptions, however misinformed it might be, is certainly a legitimate part of the story.

Unfortunately, the reporter was not content to leave it at that:

"Others are even more adamant in their opposition. 'That's a slippery slope,' said Del Bigtree, one of the producers of 'Vaxxed: From Cover-Up To Catastrophe,' a 2016 film drawing a link between autism and vaccines and alleging the federal scientists have covered up the research. It was directed by Andrew Wakefield — the former British gastroenterologist now living in Texas who authored a discredited research paper linking vaccines to autism in 1998. Bigtree, who stopped vaccinating his children, said he believes that any efforts to disclose immunization rates in schools are motivated by fear."

Having just stated that "link between the vaccines and health problems such as autism" has been "widely debunked by public health officials," why present the views of Del Bigtree, who made what was widely disparaged as a propaganda film promoting that very link? Not only that, but VAXXED purports to "explain" why parents shouldn't believe a word these public health officials say: There's a government cover-up! No mention is made of the fact that this "cover-up" was manufactured by anti-vaccinationists.

It hardly does the perfidy of Andrew Wakefield justice to call him a "former British gastroenterologist . . . who authored a discredited research paper." No, Wakefield was revealed as a fraud who fudged the facts in his "discredited paper," which was ultimately disavowed by its coauthors and retracted, and was stripped of his medical license. He is credited with the resurgence of measles, which had been all but eradicated in developed countries.

I will give Bigtree credit where credit is due: he's right that efforts to disclose immunization rates are motivated by fear, but, to the extent he implies that this fear is unreasonable, he's dead wrong. Parents have every reason to fear their child will get sick from contact with unvaccinated children and rightfully want to know how many children are not immunized at their child's school.

So, back to our question. Why is Bigtree in this story? The only reason I can think of is to provide the sort of false balance we hoped might have disappeared after Seth Mnookin took the media to task for its reporting on vaccines in The Panic Virus. As the Washington Post noted:

"Mnookin's contention that the controversy would not have achieved staying power without uncritical or at times blatantly irresponsible reporting by numerous media outlets - including NBC, the Huffington Post, Rolling Stone and The Washington Post - is persuasive. Too often, he writes, journalists display "a willingness to parrot quack claims under the guise of reporting on citizen concerns."

Unforunately, this is not the first time KHN has given an uncritical platform to an anti-vaccine propagandist for "balance." Just last year, in another news report on state exemption laws, KHN quoted none other than Barbara Loe Fisher, the grande dame of the anti-vaccination movement, on vaccine "risk," and linked to the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC). Fisher's views on vaccine "risk" have been repeatedly discredited. The American Academy of Pediatrics has described promotion of NVIC as "putting the lives of thousands of children at risk." Yet the story treated them no differently than medical experts consulted by the reporter.

As I said in an SfSBM post admonishing KHN for its uncritical reference to Fisher's views,

"In announcing the creation of KHN, Kaiser Family Foundation President and CEO Drew Altman said, 'I've always believed that good journalism is a key to informed debate and good public policy, since it's through news coverage that most people understand policy.'"

Like Fisher and the NVIC, neither Bigtree nor Wakefield have anything to contribute to "informed debate and good public policy" on immunization.  Bigtree's views on Texas immunization policy are irrelevant and he shouldn't have been interviewed for or quoted in this story. 

Points of Interest 11/20/2016
Points of Interest 11/19/2016