Vaccines represent one of the greatest achievements in public health. They have saved millions of lives and have the ability to completely eradicate some infectious diseases. They’re also extremely safe. Serious reactions to vaccines are extremely rare and deaths are even more rare. They certainly do not suppress the immune system, make people less healthy or cause autism.
The anti-vaccine movement is a false controversy, predicated on ignorance and lies. It exploits fallacies, like the belief that “natural” things are always good or that any foreign substance must be harmful to the body, if it is put there by human intervention. It is also based on fear, especially the natural instinct of parents to protect their children and not harm them. Considering the number of websites and organizations that support these lies, it’s not surprising that many people have fallen for it.
The vast majority of those who run these organizations and campaign against vaccines have no medical or scientific background at all. Some are garden variety conspiracy theorists. Others are celebrities, who became famous because they posed in men’s magazines or for acting or music. They seem to believe that its their duty to use their fame to promote something that they believe, even despite their lack of actual authority on the matter.
The overwhelming majority of competent doctors and scientists in the field will tell you that vaccines are very safe and quite effective. Even doctors whose field is not immunology generally have enough basic training in general medicine and biology to understand this undeniable fact. Those who are well versed in the real data, whether they are doctors, public health officials or just science advocates are in almost universal agreement in support of vaccines.
While it isn’t surprising that most doctors and experts do support vaccines, it is a little surprising that there are some who do not. They are few and far between. In fact, there seem to be only a handful of them worldwide, but they do exist.
A few examples:
Andrew Wakefield – The most notorious of the bunch, Wakefield is responsible for starting much of the anti-vaccine movement. In 1998, he published a study that indicated a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. The study, it turns out, was a complete fraud. The data was not simply skewed or cherry-picked, but completely made up. The study was eventually retracted by the journal that published it and Wakefield himself lost his license to practice medicine and was rebuked by the General Medical Council of the UK for professional misconduct.
Wakefield moved to the United States in 2001. He continued to do “clinical research,” although of extremely questionable legitimacy. He became involved with a number of anti-vaccine groups and since then he has made his living entirely through promotion of anti-vaccine propaganda. He’s a regular on the lecture circuit and has written two books.
Sheryl Tenpenny, DO – Sheryl Tenpenny is a medical doctor who worked in emergency medicine from 1986 until 1998. Although her specialty was not infectious disease or immunology, she is a medical doctor. Since leaving emergency medicine she has practiced mostly in the area of alternative medicine. She runs the “Tenpenny Integrative Medical Center,” which is located in Ohio. Her center offers a number of alternative treatments, which are not scientifically backed. These include chiropractic procedures, acupuncture, “detoxification,” and other such procedures. She seems to be involved in promoting (and profiting from) the entire spectrum of alternative medicine and health fraud.
One of the areas where Tenpenny is the most active is in promotion of anti-vaccine messages. She writes about it extensively and is involved in a number of anti-vaccine websites. She often uses her medical credentials to back up her message. Her website appears to be affiliated (or at least provide links to) many of the highest profile anti-vaccine sites and groups. She has written many articles on the topic. Her writings cover most areas of anti-vaccine rhetoric, claiming vaccines don’t work or that they are full of toxic ingredients and that they cause autism or other health problems. She also offers advice on various “natural” remedies to detoxify oneself after receiving vaccines or to provide protection against disease. (of course, they don’t actually work.) She also wrote a book “Saying No to Vaccines.”
Tenpenny is known for her activity on the lecture circuit. Recently, she had planned a tour of Australia, where she would give paid lectures about the supposed dangers of vaccines. The tour is now in shambles (and looks like it will be canceled) after outraged Australians first petitioned their government to deny her a visa and then persuaded the venues she was to speak at to cancel the events. Needless to say, anti-vaccine groups are saying big pharma was behind this and it’s all part of a conspiracy to shut her up.
Suzanne Humphries, MD - Another Doctor who has made her living, at least in recent years, through promoting “alternative” medicine and campaigning against vaccines. She has written books, given talks and appeared on television and other media outlets. Humphries worked as a nephrologist, before leaving mainstream medicine to promote quackery. She claims that her work in mainstream medicine, from 1989 until 2011 illustrated to her how conventional medicine has failed and how conventional medical theory is full of problems. She has said that medicine is failing patients and creating diseases.
Her statements push the bounds of even the loony world of anti-vaccine activism. She has stated “Polio virus was not responsible for the paralysis in the first part of the 20th century. Polio vaccine research, development, testing and distribution has committed atrocities upon primates and humanity. Bill Gates is not a humanitarian.” She has also has spoken out against things like antibiotics and in favor of many of the most common alternative medicine scams, such as vitamin-C megadoses.
Dr. Jack Wolfson, DO - Wolfson is a cardiologist located in Arizona who runs “” also known as “Phoenix Natural Cardiology.” His practice claims to treat and prevent illness “naturally,” and offers a number of alternative procedures as well as conventional cardiac care. He is a board certified cardiologist.
He has been in the news recently, after appearing in the media claiming that diseases like measles are “benign” and that children have the “right” to be infected with vaccine-preventible diseases. Some of his remarks have been especially inflammatory. For example, he has stated “I Don’t Care If My Kids Make Others Gravely Sick.” He also stated that a patient with leukemia probably got the disease from vaccines. After the predictable backlash he suffered from these statements, he responded with a laundry list of who is truly to blame for health problems, including everyone from detergent manufacturers to food producers to Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, for promoting computers and the internet. (Yes, his response was posted on the internet. The irony seems lost on some.)
Dr. Wolfson is currently under investigation by the state medical board. It’s not clear if the investigation is related to the statements he made. It seems that complaints have been filed against him by some of those he treated. Despite his recent stint of media appearances and his apparent love of the spotlight, he has recently been reported to have gone silent on the issue and is no longer looking to be interviewed. One can only assume that this is related to the investigation. He may have received legal advice to stop saying things that could be used against him.
These are not the only doctors out there who are spewing anti-vaccine rhetoric. There are a few others. Of course, it should be noted that they represent a tiny minority of all doctors. There are close to one million doctors in the United States alone. There are many millions more around the world. Only a tiny fraction do not endorse vaccination.
But why are there any and what is their motivation?
Reading some of the articles written by these doctors makes it very clear that they are making statements that they would know are completely false. While it’s true that medical doctors are not the same as scientists, and most of them are in fields of medicine that are not directly related to vaccines, they should have the basic knowledge to realize the claims they are making are entirely false.
For example, Dr. Wolfson repeatedly talks about “chemicals” being put into the body or how chemicals are dangerous. This is enough to make the skin crawl of anyone who knows the first thing about chemistry, because all substances are, in fact, chemicals. While Wolfson may not be a chemist, all doctors are educated in basic pharmacology and the associated chemistry. It’s hard to imagine he could have made it through medical school without realizing what a chemical is. Likewise, many of these doctors talk about “mercury” in vaccines. There never was mercury in vaccines – although there was an organomercury compound, but that is no longer used in routine vaccines. One would think a doctor would know this.
Clearly this is not a case of these doctors actually thinking that everything they say is true. Of course, it can be more complicated than that. Pathological liars do often engage in their own internal mind games of denial and cognitive dissonance. None the less, they are not motivated by a desire to actually do good or spread the truth.
This seems to be the most obvious one. Being an anti-vaccine advocate, especially when you are a doctor, is a great way to make a lot of money. There are some cases where money is clearly and indisputably a major reason for this dishonesty. For example, Andrew Wakefield had applied for a patent on a measles vaccine that would have competed with the MMR vaccine that his fraudulent study linked to autism. This gave him a potentially huge financial stake in slandering the MMR vaccine.
It is often pointed out that doctors can make a very good living without resorting to dishonesty. This is certainly true, at least to some extent. Being a doctor can mean a lot of hard work and long hours and a lot of stress. The pay for being a doctor is pretty good, but not as good as one might think. It varies greatly, depending on the specialty, level of experience and the kind of working arrangements a doctor has. Base pay starts around $190,000 for family practitioners and pediatricians. It may be lower for doctors who work in some clinics and hospitals and for doctors just starting out. Doctors who work in the more lucrative fields can earn upwards of a half a million dollars a year.
Granted, this is quite a bit of money, but being a doctor won’t generally make someone rich. It will only make them upper class. On the other hand, being a public speaker, author and activist can be surprisingly lucrative and certainly involves a lot less work and much more down time. It also does not necessarily mean that the doctor must stop practicing medicine. It’s possible to do both and make a lot of money.
Money can be made from selling books and hawking other products, such as detoxification regimes and a variety of snake oil and many of these doctors do. Even more money can be made with speaking engagements. Sheryl Tenpenny is a perfect example. While she may have claimed her tour of Australia was to promote health and speak out against the dangers of vaccines, the fact is that those attending her lectures were paying upwards of $200. If she could have gotten just two hundred people to attend the eleven lectures she planned, that would be revenue of up to $440,000. It seems she easily could have raked in half a million dollars on this tour. Granted, some of that money would go to the venue and to other expenses, but in the end, she could make the kind of profit most doctors would be lucky to earn in a year.
The image to the right is a real promotional image for one of Tenpenny’s lectures. Apparently her stateside presentations are a bit cheaper than the ones in Australia. Still, for someone who claims to be doing this all out of concern for health and promotion of the truth, that is a lot to charge! I’ve paid less to see concerts by some pretty legendary artists.
Perhaps one of the most blatant examples of profiting off of lies is Tenpenny’s “Vaccine Research Library.” The website contains a lot of anti-vaccine information, which you can check out all for a subscription fee of about ten dollars a month, although discounted when you sing up for multiple months of the subscription. It is absolutely jaw-dropping that the lying Tenpenny can push this with a straight face!
Many of these dishonest physicians operate their own practices, generally being “alternative” or “holistic” establishments. Tenpenny operates The Tenpenny Integrative Medical Center and Wolfson operates Phoenix Natural Cardiology. It is therefore natural that they would take to the media in order to get as much attention as possible for their ventures. The kind of patients this nonsense will attract are some of the best: wealthy gullible hypochondriacs.
Attention, Praise and Being Treated Like a Hero:
I believe that, for many, this represents a greater motivation than the desire to get rich.
If you listen to what anti-vaccine activists say about themselves, you would think they are a combination of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and every other downtrodden hero you can think of wrapped up in one. We here constantly about how they are fighting the big money, the big companies and how everyone against them is some kind of shill for the pharmaceuticals. It’s a scripted David and Goliath mantra that reeks or narcissism and self-promotion.
Of course, the reality is that they rarely face any real consequences for their lies. They talk about death threats, but never actually show any evidence that they received them. Censures and rebukes, like those Wakefield faced are used as evidence of persecution.
They will tell you that they care about the children and the truth and the promotion of good health and wellness. Whether or not the majority of people buy this is not really the point. There are enough people who do buy it to assure they are surrounded by gushing fans and followers, who cling to them like members of a cult. Their followers seem to turn a blind eye to the money they make or the numerous times they were caught in bold faced lies.
People will show up at protests to support them. They will write them endless letters of praise, gush on their books and articles and, of course, donate money. For a true narcissist, it is hard to imagine a greater thrill.
Just take a look at some of these protests on behalf of the disgraced Andrew Wakefield:
I would also sugest taking a look at the comments on a posting made by Wolfson. They are moderated, so they’re only the positive ones, but it clearly shows the kind of copious praise one of these liars can get. People commend his bravery, honesty and talk about how they wish more doctors were like him. At least one even says she wants to marry him. Yeah, seriously.
Granted this is only my opinion, but from the level of shameless self-promotion these lying doctors engage in, I believe that basking in the adoration of their followers is likely the single greatest motivation, even over money.
Practicing real medicine is an important and honorable job, but it’s often thankless, and even when doctors are offered thanks and appreciation, it’s not generally in the form of hundreds of groupies. Being a doctor is not a very effective way of becoming famous or gaining legions of groupies. Lying about vaccines, it seems, is.
This entry was posted on Saturday, February 7th, 2015 at 3:13 pm and is filed under Bad Science, Quackery. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.
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