This post comes on the occasion of there having been brought to my attention an article about vaccines (specifically the influenza vaccine) which was published by what appears to be a fake news site, a site called Earth We Are One. EWAO in turn links to an article on yournewswire, a known fake news site and purveyor of pseudoscience (although the url and branding now identifies it as News Punch, in the Earth We Are One article, it is identified as a yournewswire article). I will hereafter refer to this set of fake news and pseudoscience as EWAO/etc. Its premise is the standard antivaxxer fare: vaccines do nothing, they have all sorts of bad things added to them, getting vaccines is worse than getting the illness they are supposed to prevent. So on and so forth.
The part on which I want to comment is the issue of this fake science article paraphrasing a statement that implies the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is aware that vaccines are really no more effective than going unvaccinated. One of the principal ways these sorts of pseudoscience articles succeed in successfully provoking anti-vaxx hysteria is by paraphrasing seemingly legitimate sources (such as the CDC) without providing a link so that the reader can verify the citation. In this case, the CDC was allegedly quoted in an article published in the British Medical Journal by Peter Doshi, PhD.
I managed to track down the BMJ article in question and do some poking around about this Peter Doshi fellow. To begin with, the supposed-expert Dr. Doshi is an anthropologist and not a specialist in vaccines in particular or even epidemiology or virology in general.(1) Secondly, the BMJ article, Influenza: marketing vaccine by marketing disease, was published in 2013, which in the timeframe of medical literature and publishing, is not exactly cutting edge.(2) Also, although the article was published in the high-profile British Medical Journal, it was not a research article but an opinion/editorial piece, and really shouldn’t be paraded about as though it were a research article.
But to make things even curiouser, the CDC was not quoted in Doshi’s article exactly as EWAO/etc claimed. The misleading quotation is as follows: “When read carefully, the CDC acknowledges that studies finding any perceived reduction in death rates may be due to the “healthy-user effect” — the tendency for healthier people to be vaccinated more than less-healthy people. The only randomized trial of influenza vaccine in older people found no decrease in deaths.” (I am not linking to the EWAO/etc article because that trash does not need to be spread further.)
First of all, in Doshi’s 2013 BMJ op-ed (2), there are two citations for the “healthy-user effect”—and neither of them are from the CDC. (3,4) The healthy-user effect is mentioned only obliquely in the actual text cited from the CDC (5), and the CDC citation is only in reference to a small subset of all of the available evidence for the effectiveness of the flu vaccine (not all of the evidence, as the EWAO/etc article suggests). Additionally, the CDC report does not state that the “only randomized controlled trial of influenza vaccine in older people” “found no decrease in deaths” (as EWAO/etc claimed) but only that “the estimate of efficacy among participants aged ≥70 years could not exclude no effect”. You must admit that the extrapolation of “no decrease in deaths” from the statement that an estimate “could not exclude no effect” is quite a leap.
Doshi’s issue with the flu vaccine and the CDC’s recommendations seems to come down to this: he wants the evidence for the flu vaccine’s effectiveness to be held to high standards—which for the record, is something I am totally here for, being a big fan of evidence based everything. But he’s playing a zero-sum game: it seems that in his mind, the flu vaccine is only evidence-based and thus “good” if it has a rock-solid 100% efficacy rate, documented by evidence that meets his exacting standards. If it doesn’t, well, you must be better off without it, because just think about it—who knows what they’re putting in those things? Jeepers!
And the anti-vaxx movement loves this. They probably don’t really care about the details of the research methods Doshi talks about and they probably don’t give a plague-infected rat’s ass about improving the quality of healthcare in general or vaccines in particular. Doshi has given them what they want and what they need to feed their movement: an article in a high-profile, high-impact journal that they can quote and parade around as a way to legitimize science that is as fake as their news media.
5 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20689501
ctrl+F (search) for “(134,135,232,241–244)” (without the quote marks) to get to the pertinent section