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MARCH 28, 2010 2:30PM

Huffington Post Health Watch: HuffPo Gets it Right?

Rate: 11 Flag

Did April Fools' Day come early at the Huffington Post?

 I couldn't help but ask myself that when I came across some Tweets about a post on it called "Is Jenny McCarthy Afraid of the Truth About Autism?" The essay is by a journalist from Iceland named Iris Erlingsdottir, who is the mother of two children with autism.  Her post is a direct response to a March 10th essay by McCarthy about vaccines and autism, and offers the view from what I believe is a silent but large group of parents with autistic children who don't buy the notion that vaccines cause it. 

The Post, as many Salon readers know, is woo central.   Its most famous quackery is about vaccines and autism, and it is home to anti-vaccine folks like McCarthy, David Kirby, Kim Stagliano, and others.  But there are many other snakeoil salesmen slithering around there as well.   Most recently, Salon's Thomas Rodgers debunked a claim made by one doctor that MSG was a health hazard worse than alcohol or tobacco. 

 Given its illustrious anti-scientific lineage, it really took me by surprise when I saw Erlingsdottir's essay there, which begins with a personal story from 1975, when her then 20-month old cousin woke up unable to walk, and gradually developed severe neurological problems:

"The following day, the left side of her sweet little face had become strangely contorted, and she was completely unable to move her left arm or leg.  Terrified, her mother took her to the hospital where the family spent the next five weeks in agony and fear until doctors finally discovered what ailed the child. Little Kristín had mumps, which in the 1960s before vaccination was available (in Iceland not until 1989), infected millions of children every year. The virus usually causes a chipmunk face and fever, but occasionally it penetrates the brain and spinal cord linings, causing seizures, meningitis, paralysis, and in some cases, death."

 Erlingsdottir then delves into the modern anti-vaccination movement:  


"Measles have now become endemic in the UK as a result of the decline in vaccine coverage, 14 years after the disease had practically vanished. In Dublin in 1999, the year after Andrew Wakefield's 'trial-lawyer funded, an incompetent, and quite likely scientifically fradulent paper' more than 100 children were hospitalized with measles."

Then Erlingsdottir turns her criticism to McCarthy.  Many readers already know that McCarthy--like other anti-vaccine folks--weaves together anger, fear and anecdote into a conspiracy theory that pediatricians and others are out to harm children.    Erlingsdottir, however, won't have any of it.  "McCarthy's logic...is a snakepit of neurotic aberrations, conspiracy theories, childish outbursts ("that's a lie and we're sick of it"), profanities ("it's their [vaccine companies] fucking fault"; "bullshit"; "it's [vaccine] a shit product"), and outright lies: "our own government clearly acknowledges that vaccines cause brain damages in certain vulnerable kids", which it does not at all"

Erlingsdottir then debunks McCarthy's "proof" that vaccines cause autism, including the following: 

"McCarthy claims that 'other countries give their kids one-third as many shots as we do,' but a comparison of European and US vaccination schedules reveal that they are largely identical; with some countries even out-vaccining the evil USA." 

Finally, and to my delight, she takes a hard look at McCarthy's motivations, and that of other anti-vaccinationists, for keeping this debate alive:

"I'll venture that McCarthy has no less a financial stake in the vaccine wars than Big Pharma and the evil "diagnosticians and pediatricians." There is a lot of money to be made in snake oil pitching and crockpottery -- long known lucrative side industries for aging celebrities -- as she knows from personal experience selling books and the false cures on her website where her sponsors peddle hyperbaric chambers and useless supplements-- in the US, a $24 billion industry annually -- to desperate parents of autistic children. When you have a whole industry -- books, TV appearances, supplements, merchandise -- and the adulation of religiously devoted followers riding on your theory, the stakes are high. Having to admit you're wrong is intolerable. (How's McCarthy's "quantum prayer wheel" working for your kid's autism?) It is much easier to simply reject the truth, which as we know, the vaccine denialists don't care about; it is irrelevant to them. Their attitude is that of Lord Molson: "I will look at any additional evidence to confirm the opinion to which I have already come."

 The other refreshing point about this post (at least so far) is the number of positive responses it has generated.  The usual modus operandi of HuffPo readers is to hurl insults at anybody who writes to the safety and importance of vaccines.  But here, there is a fair group of responses thanking and defending the author.

 Perhaps it's a sign that the Post's readership is growing beyond its angry, conspiracy-minded, and anti-scientific base.  But I won't so far as to declare the it cured of that constituency anytime soon.  On the other hand, the responses are more likely an aberration, with the comments supporting Erlingsdottir those of people who are not regular readers.  Like me, they were probably tipped off by Twitter or other alerts to directing them to it, and dived into the normally crazy comments section to help. 




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I would have never gotten this information, which I am very interested in without your post here. Thank you for a job well done.
Thank-you for bringing this article to wider attention in such a cogent manner. As a public health person, I often feel 'under attack' from the anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists. There is no reasoning with their flawed logic. However, as a counter-point, Erlingsdottir looks to have provided a fair and balanced view. ~R
excellent, bravo, huzzah!

A "miracle" if HuffPo wises up, to be sure.

You write well, Rahul. Always crisp, effective, never cranky, and your aim is true. loved this.
Great post. You might find my line-by-line debunking of McCarthy's HuffPost piece interesting, too:

Will also check out this counter-post that you site.