Combatting Anti-Science, Anti-Vaccination Propaganda in My Workplace

Debbie says:

I work in a reasonably liberal, forward-looking intelligent office in San Francisco (as long as we don’t get into classism issues, which is a whole different post). Yesterday, as part of “Wellness Week,” our wonderful office manager hired a local speaker (Dr. Terrance Stackwood, a chiropractor in San Francisco) to talk about nutrition and stress reduction. I didn’t go and, apparently, the presentation was poorly attended–and most of the attendees were guilted in so the speaker wouldn’t be speaking to an almost empty room.

I’m really glad I didn’t go, because after some basic health platitudes, Dr. Stackwood  apparently launched into an anti-vaccination rant. One amusing aspect of this is that today’s wellness week event is free flu shots (!) His primary argument was the completely disproved one about the dangers of formaldehyde. (In fact, the amount of formaldehyde in an average vaccination dose is so small that it does not statistically increase the amount of naturally occurring formaldehyde in the body, including in the body of an infant.)

Apparently, most of the several people in the room were uncomfortable, but no one said anything. If I had been there, it would have gone differently. A co-worker discussed it with me shortly after the presentation was over. After talking to Laurie, I wrote the following letter. I’m reproducing all of it here because it includes good references if you ever get into an argument with an anti-vaccination person.

At the advice of the president of the San Francisco branch of the company, who sits right by me, I sent it to the head of Human Resources for San Francisco, rather than the office manager. The president was horrified that this had happened. The Director of Human Resources responded quickly to tell me she was in complete agreement. I think Dr. Stackwood will not be asked back.


Hi, [HR Director],

I did not attend today’s presentation by Dr. Stackwood and, in the end, I’m really glad I didn’t, because I would not have been able to keep from being disruptive. Apparently, according to at least two folks who were there, he took an active anti-vaccination position, because of the “danger of formaldehyde.” This position is completely unscientific and, in fact, is actively dangerous to public health. It should never be embraced by a science-based, evidence-based organization like [my employer].

I want to stress at the beginning that I don’t think this was anyone’s fault (except Dr. Stackwood’s). I also don’t think he did any harm, given the small audience, and the good sense and ability to evaluate information of our colleagues. It’s just something we shouldn’t repeat, and most of this email consists of reasons why it matters.

I see that Dr. Stackwood is a chiropractor, and he hasn’t been published, in book or article form, by our company. I feel confident that we can find health and nutrition experts with more status; in fact, I would be happy to help look for someone for next year.

Here’s a link that demonstrates the bottom line—lack of vaccination causes illness and death:

Measles cases are spiking sharply in the U.S., the CDC reported today.

The 222 cases and 17 outbreaks seen in 2011 are nearly four times the median of 60 cases and four outbreaks per year seen over the last decade. A third of patients were hospitalized.

The surge in cases is largely due to people who have not been vaccinated with the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine, the CDC says. A significant percentage of these people are children and teens whose parents exempted them from school vaccination requirements.

Unvaccinated people put themselves and others at risk — particularly infants too young to be vaccinated, who can have the most severe complications,” Anne Schuchat, MD, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said …

Thanks to high vaccination rates in the 1990s, the U.S. eliminated year-round measles transmission in 2000. But the current spike in cases threatens that achievement.

Schuchat pointed to France, which was down to about 40 measles cases per year. Suddenly that went to 604 cases in 2008, over 5,000 cases in 2010, and over 15,000 cases in 2011.

“You can go from a small number to a very large number of measles cases very quickly,” Schuchat warned.

Fortunately there were no measles deaths in the U.S. in 2011, although one infant in intensive care had a narrow brush with death. Before the measles vaccine came along in 1957, there were one to three deaths for every 1,000 cases. Worldwide, measles kills 164,000 people a year.

Here’s an academic journal link:

Vaccines are among the most effective and cost-effective means for the prevention of disease. The development of viral vaccines predates the recognition of viral agents as causes of disease by over a century; their use has resulted in marked decreases in the incidence or eradication of diseases that were important causes of human mortality. Vaccines are now available to prevent 13 viral diseases, and new generations of vaccines being developed through molecular techniques hold the promise of providing protection against others.

The development of successful disease control programs requires safe and effective vaccines and effective public health strategies to prevent disease. Strategies for vaccine use are based on knowledge of epidemiology, consideration of whether eradication or reduction of disease is the primary goal, and the potential for implementing effective programs to deliver vaccines either to the entire population or to target groups.

Childhood immunization programs are now recommended in all countries and have resulted in substantial declines in the occurrence of vaccine-preventable diseases in both developed and developing countries.

Here’s a science-based link specifically about the indefensible position that formaldehyde in vaccines is dangerous.

The average quantity of formaldehyde to which a young infant could be exposed at one time may be as high as 0.2 mg (see table below). This quantity of formaldehyde is considered to be safe for two reasons:

  • First, formaldehyde is essential in human metabolism and is required for the synthesis of DNA and amino acids (the building blocks of protein). Therefore, all humans have detectable quantities of natural formaldehyde in their circulation (about 2.5 ug of formaldehyde per ml of blood). Assuming an average weight of a 2-month-old of 5 kg and an average blood volume of 85 ml per kg, the total quantity of formaldehyde found in an infant’s circulation would be about 1.1 mg, a value at least five-fold greater than that to which an infant would be exposed in vaccines.
  • Second, quantities of formaldehyde at least 600 fold greater than that contained in vaccines have been given safely to animals.

Finally, here’s another science-based examination of the anti-vaccine movement, and its complete willingness to ignore science, research, and data in the desire to fuel anti-government fears:

Given that vaccines as a whole are extensively studied in infants and that we have longstanding historical evidence of vaccine safety, this “toxins” gambit is nothing more than a ploy that (1) appeals to the fear of chemicals with complicated, nasty-sounding names; (2) plays on the scientific ignorance of the American public, many of whom don’t understand the concept of dose-response and think that it’s possible to eliminate nasty chemicals completely; and (3) produces an intentionally impractical regulatory hurdle that vaccines must overcome, as each and every component, seemingly, must be studied individually in individual clinical trials, regardless of existing evidence. One wonders if Sears realizes the implication of his argument. Would we have to test the buffer solution that is used for safety, even though it’s usually something like phosphate-buffered normal saline? Or what about formaldehyde, which is a normal byproduct of metabolism and is present in vaccines at levels far below what is already in the infant’s body to begin with?

I could go on for weeks. And, of course, the anti-vaccination folks can provide just as many links. What they can’t provide is any respectable science to back up their claims.

Thanks for thinking about this, and I hope I didn’t bombard you with too much information.

6 thoughts on “Combatting Anti-Science, Anti-Vaccination Propaganda in My Workplace

  1. Good for you!

    I saw a sign in my workplace for a talk by some local doctor about something I felt was questionable – not as clear cut as vaccination, but “superfoods” or something like that. It looked like a sales pitch for the doctor’s practice. I was annoyed, but forgot about it till now. I wish I’d said something, though I’m not sure in a company the size of mine who I’d contact.

  2. Great letter. I have sympathy for folks who worry about the quantity and safety of vaccines, but presentations of this sort are pernicious.

  3. I love this site, and have been reading for a few years. But those of us who oppose the practice of vaccination have our reasons, and they are neither anti-scientific nor uninformed.

    The part about finding someone with more ‘status’ to speak next time at your place of employment made me uneasy (especially after mentioning a few sentences prior that your workplace, while left-leaning, had pervasive issues with classism).

    With respect to vaccines, follow the money and look for sources of information outside of the medical/pharmaceutical hierarchy. You might be surprised by what you find (I know I was).

    1. Hi, Noel,

      Thanks for writing!

      I’ll cop to the classism comment. I work on my classism, but sometimes without success, and this was one of those times. (My workplace is noticeably more classist than I am, which actually makes my mistake worse.)

      As for the vaccination issue, I’d be interested to look at your references if you want to send them. Without having seen them, however, I have to say that I am convinced that vaccination saves thousands, if not tens of thousands, more lives than it costs. As the parent of a child who died at birth, and having been first-level support to parents whose child died as a teenager and as an adult, I am deeply aware of the pain and fear that goes into putting our children at risk, and (more than) sympathetic. For me, that doesn’t change the role of vaccination in saving lives.

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