Anti-vaccine ads, and how false advertising harms children

Where is the line between true and false advertising? And should we be more careful when the claims an ad makes has potential health consequences for children and communities?

Let’s ask newspapers that question about big adverts they’ve printed from Generation Rescue, an autism advocacy group, the one headed up by Jenny McCarthy, who regularly appears on National TV claiming vaccines cause autism.

The ads, which you can see on the Generation Rescue website, and have run mostly in USA Today (there were two in the New York Times in 2005) are formulaic for those of us who have seen them. Images of large syringes and needles, big headers asking things like “Are We Poisoning Our Kids?” and claiming “A 6000% Increase in Autism. Wouldn’t You Try to Cover it Up Too?” The smaller print then goes into some pretty disturbing details. Among them:

* “the CDC knows that the ambitious immunization schedule begun in the 1990s, nearly tripling the amount of mercury injected into our children, created an epidemic of autism in America”
* “Vaccines contain “Mercury, Aluminum, Formaldehyde, Ether and Antifreeze.”
* “as the number of childhood vaccines has tripled, we’ve seen an explosion of neurological disorders like ADHD and autism…”

As evidence of a link between autism and vaccines, one of the ads refers to a “market survey” Generation Rescue commissioned which found “vaccinated boys had more than a 2.5 times greater rate of neurological disorders than unvaccinated boys.”

Scary and very confusing stuff if you’re a parent and you’re trying to do the right thing for your child. So let’s look beyond the claims and at the facts:

* There is no credible (unless you consider a market survey credible) evidence to suggest that any specific vaccine, any specific ingredient meant to keep vaccines safe and effective, the schedule of vaccines or the number of vaccines a child gets causes autism. Yes, anti-vaccination advocates point to studies of their own, and claim that the studies that support vaccine safety are all funded by pharma. But anti-vaccination groups fund their own “research” as well. So putting money aside, when one looks at the credibility of the science (internal validity, reproducibility of the results, and the generalizability of them), the answer shows vaccines are safe and effective. For more about the lunacy of anti-vaccine science, read or see my review of Dr. Paul Offit’s book.

* Vaccines do not contain antifreeze or ether. Mercury, in the form of thimerosal, was removed from most vaccines in 2001, even before several studies showed it was not the culprit behind autism. One study, looking at the rates of autism in California after 2001, found that autism rates rose in the post-thimerosal era. It’s true that some vaccines contain aluminum to help stimulate an immune response, and there are trace amounts of formaldehyde as a preservative.

The implications of the ad are clear — health officials have covered up a conspiracy to hide a inconvenient truth about vaccines,. But the reality is that the ads push a message that’s help drive down vaccine rates in many parts of the country in the absence of good medical evidence to the otherwise. It’s PR, not science, and it’s hurting the health of children and communities. Consider:

* A Measles outbreak in San Diego in March 2008, after an unvaccinated child returned from a trip to Europe
* An outbreak of H. flu in Minnesota, some of whom were in children whose parents have refused vaccines

Questions for readers: Should media outlets balance the public interest and the strong advertising claims, like in these ads? Does a lack of medical evidence to support an ad qualify it as false advertising? Should the FDA regulate ads that make health claims that are unsubstantiated, or–like tobacco–add a Black Box Warning to adverts that make medical claims?

Rahul K. Parikh is a pediatrician and a writer.  He can be reached at his self-titled site, Dr. Rahul K. Parikh.

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