American consumers, particularly parents, should be asking some hard questions about why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and Immunization Action Coalition (IAC) apparently have no interest in improving vaccine safety.
In the face of snowballing vaccine scandals—from fudged safety trials that use other vaccines as placebos, to persistent use of neurotoxic aluminum adjuvants, to the accelerated rollout of unproven vaccines that may be causing more problems than they solve—these and other vaccine advocacy organizations are not only turning a blind eye but are actively circling the wagons while beefing up public relations (PR) intended to stifle discussion.
These PR efforts are on revealing display in an April 2017 IAC webinar on “Vaccines and the New Administration” that unsurprisingly singles out the activities of the World Mercury Project and its Chairman, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Expressing equal parts alarm and disdain, the AAP rhetorically asks, “Vaccine safety: here we go again…?”
Due to the well-funded medical-pharmaceutical-media apparatus that endlessly repeats the mantra that all vaccines are safe for all people all the time, it is nearly impossible to get a fair hearing for common-sense questions about vaccine safety, no matter how urgent such questions may be.
The biases apparent in mainstream discussions about vaccine safety have come into even sharper focus since the changeover from one political administration to the next. In February 2017, shortly after the inauguration, several hundred national and state-based organizations rushed to sign a letter lobbying President Trump to “redouble” efforts to drive up the vaccination rate.
The IAC and the AAP were two signatories of that letter, which summarily dismissed concerns about vaccine risks as “disproven.”
World Mercury Project on the radar
The April webinar and the slides presented by the AAP (Figure 1) give clear insights into the efforts under way to shut down any questions regarding vaccine safety. Although the AAP also briefly considered two other perceived threats to the vaccine program—1) candidate Trump’s legitimate questioning of vaccine safety and timing and 2) citizen pressures on Congress to hold hearings on vaccines—Kennedy and World Mercury Project garnered fully one third (3/9) of the AAP’s slides. The three slides took note of the following events:
- The January meeting between Kennedy and President-elect Trump to discuss a possible Commission for vaccine safety and scientific integrity;
- The February 15 press conference convened by Kennedy and actor Robert De Niro at the National Press Club; and
- The March 31 “Revolution for Truth” rally in Washington, DC, sponsored by World Mercury Project and four other organizations.
FIGURE 1. April 2017 IAC Webinar: AAP Presentation
In each instance, the AAP lobbyist, Patrick Johnson, used his PowerPoint to undercut the impact of the events, first, by downgrading the potential Commission from one focusing on vaccine safety and scientific integrity to one supposedly focusing “only” on autism; second, by describing the congressional briefing that followed the February 15 press conference as “sparsely attend” [sic]; and third, by stating that the March rally had “very little press coverage.” Of course, Johnson did not mention the powerful role of pharmaceutical industry advertising dollars in shaping mainstream news and disincentivizing true journalistic curiosity, nor was there a nod to the influence of pharmaceutical dollars on congressional (or AAP) priorities. (To put the pharmaceutical industry’s financial impact in perspective, total pharmaceutical revenues worldwide began exceeding one trillion dollars annually in 2014, with the U.S. pharmaceutical industry dominating the global market.)
The AAP’s co-conspirators
In addition to the AAP, three other organizations contributed content to the IAC webinar. All four entities profess to be reliable sources of information on vaccines but share a concerted PR focus that aims to head vaccine safety concerns off at the pass. All of the organizations frame their aims in terms of cementing vaccine infrastructure and funding. The AAP’s three sister organizations are:
- The 317 Coalition: The 317 Coalition derives its name from Section 317 of the Public Health Service Act, which authorizes federal purchases of vaccines. The 317 Coalition’s organizational members include vaccine manufacturers. The Coalition’s “sole” focus is advocacy for increased Section 317 funding. Federal vaccine purchases currently depend on the Affordable Care Act (ACA) for over half of their funds, giving rise to Coalition worries about what might happen with an ACA modification or repeal (Figure 2). The 317 Coalition is staffed by Cornerstone Government Affairs—a PR firm based in Washington, DC, that specializes in “federal and state government relations” and “strategic communications.” Mark Mioduski, one of Cornerstone’s senior founding partners, presented webinar content on behalf of the Coalition.
- Every Child by Two (ECBT): ECBT works to “share [the] value of vaccines with federal and state legislators” and generate vaccine safety “talking points” (Figure 3). The webinar presenter, Amy Pisani, is ECBT’s Executive Director.
- The Adult Vaccine Access Coalition (AVAC): AVAC focuses on “bringing necessary federal policy changes” to increase adult vaccination rates, in particular. The webinar presenter, Abby Bownas (employed by another Washington, DC-based PR company called NVG LLC), routinely lobbies policymakers in support of “legislative and regulatory solutions” to get more adults to line up for vaccines.
There are many overlapping connections between these (and similar) organizations. For example, ECBT’s Amy Pisani serves on the 317 Coalition’s six-member Steering Committee and on Paul Offit’s Vaccine Education Center Advisory Board. Offit, in turn, sits on the ECBT Board of Directors as well as the 317 Coalition Steering Committee. The IAC’s Executive Director and Chief Strategy Officer are two of the remaining members of the 317 Coalition Steering Committee.
FIGURE 2. April 2017 IAC Webinar: 317 Coalition Presentation
FIGURE 3. April 2017 IAC Webinar: ECBT Presentation
Going after “vaccine hesitancy”
Vaccine proponents have handily coined a new term to describe virtually anyone who raises any questions about vaccine safety (or effectiveness). The term—which contrasts with the vaccine complacency that holds sway in public health and medical circles—is vaccine hesitancy. A highly visible vaccine hesitancy article published in Pediatrics in 2016 defined the term and sought to enhance health providers’ persuasive tactics against the growing pushback from worried families.
The Pediatrics article paints vaccine-hesitant individuals with a broad brush. They are, according to the authors, “a heterogeneous group who hold varying degrees of indecision about specific vaccines or about vaccinations in general,” including individuals who “accept all vaccines but remain concerned about them,” “refuse or delay some vaccines but accept others,” or “refuse all vaccines.” The Pediatrics authors express confidence in the ability of “targeted discussion strategies” to vanquish most of these objections (particularly because “vaccine discussions continue to occupy the media and Internet”), but they also agree that “some families still will not be persuaded to vaccinate,” even when a pediatrician threatens a family with dismissal from their practice “as a last resort.”
It is no coincidence that Pediatrics is the official journal of the AAP, which does not think twice about using the journal to push its party line on vaccination. The IAC, too, has got vaccine hesitancy squarely in its sights. Its website conspicuously features tools (including a role-playing video and PowerPoint slide sets) intended to help health professionals deal with recalcitrant parents. The IAC’s “save-the-date” newsletter about the April 2017 webinar even promoted attendance by stating that the webinar would discuss “encouragement of vaccine hesitancy by some elected officials, including the president.”
That same IAC announcement also used “Robert Kennedy Jr.’s claims about a new vaccine safety commission” as a sound bite to spur webinar attendance and marshal the troops. Even though there are other nonprofits that have long advocated for a deeper look at vaccine safety, the disproportionate attention to the relatively new-on-the-scene World Mercury Project from the IAC, AAP and other members of the vaccine juggernaut is telling. Perhaps the stellar reputation of Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in fighting for underdogs is making it tougher for these vaccine apologists to make a smear campaign stick. Regardless, members of the public should be asking themselves where the true conflicts of interest lie.