Rights + Justice

Is There an Upside to a Measles Outbreak?

Here's one: experts are publicly shaming anti-vaxxers.

By Shannon Rupp 4 Mar 2015 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

Who knew the return of measles would usher in a new age of wonders.

If you've followed the growing outrage over the anti-vaccination movement paving the way for diseases we thought were gone you'll have noticed a number of things that could be called miracles. Well, if I were the sort to indulge in magical thinking, that is.

From publishers apologizing to readers for inept health reporting, to naturopaths calling out homeopaths for selling fake vaccines, it's as if someone waved a magic wand and turned passive consumers into active citizens. Quaint old phrases like "the public good" are suddenly on everyone's lips.

Take the Toronto-area mom who made a splash internationally after she blogged about her infant being exposed to measles in their doctor's waiting room. She was quarantined on spot-watch for 21 days looking for symptoms of the disease that can kill babies.

"You have chosen not to vaccinate your child and I blame you," writes Jennifer Hibben-White, in a Facebook post that went viral. She goes on to tear a strip off Typhoid Mary for taking personal advantage of herd immunity at the expense of the old, the young and the infirm. Reportedly her post convinced some vaccine-resistors to change their minds.

Then there's the anti-vaxxing Queen's University professor Melody Torcolacci, MA, who has just taken one of those leaves-of-absence due to public uproar over her scientifically inaccurate course. The poor undergrads had been grousing about "physical determinants of health" since 2012, but it wasn't until measles arrived that the administration took her off the course.

Signs and wonders

The return of measles has injected new life into old debates at another of our democratic institutions, the newspaper. A few weeks ago, the Toronto Star took a public whupping for the sort of health reporting that news outlets have been producing, sans consequence, as long as I can remember.

The article told tales of some women who believe their mystery illnesses are the result of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine. The reporters buried the dull facts -- that there was no evidence of a connection between the illnesses and the vaccine -- deep below the frightening anecdotes and scary photos about the "dark side" of Gardasil.

Most of us know that correlation and causation are not the same thing, and generally we shrug off newspaper sensationalism as the price of a free press. Not this time. A parade of doctors, scientists and scientifically literate readers took the role of the responsible citizen and held the Star to account for fear mongering.

It turned into a war of words as the Star did what newspapers tend to do: circled the wagons and used the power of Canada's largest circulation newspaper to attack their critics personally.

Dr. Jen Gunter, who hails from Winnipeg, came in for a special sneer from columnist Heather Mallick, who dismissed her views as those of a "rural doctor."

"Here's a tip," Mallick writes. "Don't read a website run by a rural doctor whose slogan is 'wielding the lasso of truth.'"

Now let's leave aside the snobbery that has Mallick assuming her Toronto locale makes her superior, to note that Dr. Gunter graduated medical school at 23 and is board certified in two specialties, in two countries. She is a practicing obstetrician-gynecologist in San Francisco. If anyone were qualified to comment on the vaccine that protects against the virus causing cervical cancer, it would be her.

Mallick also made the mistake of invoking the name of Britain's Ben Goldacre, an internationally known science journalist, who also happens to be a doctor. His blog "Bad Science" is must reading for anyone trying to sort through bad journalism.

Goldacre was not amused: "Not only have you engaged in crass, outdated, scare story journalism but you are using your print media platform to smear those who have tried to point out, to far smaller audiences, your own errors," Goldacre told Mallick in some Feb. 9 tweets. "Again I'm not just appalled, I'm genuinely baffled that you would risk signing your name to this."

Charm patrol

Editor-in-Chief Michael Cooke distinguished himself by responding to one of the story's critics in Twitter with the opening, "Try not to be an idiot." And that was before he got warmed up.

He also attacked Julia Belluz, a health reporter with, who had the temerity to raise questions about the accuracy of their Gardasil story. Belluz reported Cooke's reply: "... your time might be better spent doing your own Vox-paid-for research into Gardasil-good-and-questionable rather than idly picking into other reporters' work." He added: "... you should stop gargling our bathwater and take the energy to run your own fresh tub."

"He's a charmer," Belluz notes.

The LA Times probably summed up the whole fiasco best in its headline: "How a major newspaper bungled a vaccine story, then smeared its critics."

And that's when the miracle happened.

Star publisher John Cruickshank went on CBC's As It Happens and admitted that the paper had failed its readers. And he didn't just throw some reporter under the bus, as publishers are wont to do.

"It was in the management of the story at the top," he said. "I take responsibility; Michael Cooke takes responsibility. And we'll focus on doing better in the future."

Then Cruickshank removed the story from the website. Cynics muttered that he was just scrubbing the record of the paper's embarrassment, but that would be impossible given its discussion in other media. The Washington Post's piece is typical: "Botched expose of HPV vaccine's 'dark side' reveals dark side of news business."

Personally, I believe Cruickshank experienced a publisher's version of a Grinch-like conversion, due to the mystical power of measles.

His response seems particularly marvelous in contrast with how Vancouver's Georgia Straight handled a similar incident six years ago.

Dispensing medical advice

In 2009, the Straight published columns by homeopath Sonya McLeod (daughter of Georgia Straight owner Dan McLeod) claiming homeopathic treatments offered protection against the H1N1 virus.

Some local skeptics complained to the paper and blogged about it, and like the Star, the Straight went on the defensive.

Editor Charlie Smith wrote a piece defending the publisher's daughter and her anti-vaxxing views: "Medical error is a lot more dangerous than homeopathy."

"Last week the Georgia Straight published an article on homeopathy.... For that we have been pilloried by some readers and members of a local skeptics group, even though there is no evidence that homeopathic remedies have any dangerous side effects," Smith wrote.

He then argued that medicine, by contrast, is harming people. He quoted a research study about errors made in hospitals that cause "adverse events" -- meaning anything from prolonging the patient's stay to killing someone. The study found about 7.5 per cent cases had some mistake that harms a patient, and the researchers were documenting the errors with an eye to finding protocols to prevent them.

"As I read the comments from outraged readers, I asked myself: Do these people ever raise their voices in protest against the frequency of medical errors, which actually kill people?" Smith wrote.

Despite the hilarious leaps-of-logic in this piece, readers barely reacted. No doctors called them out for misleading the public. No other media investigated them. And there was certainly no public shaming of the sort the Star scribes suffered.

This could be due to any number of differences, of course. It's true the privately-owned weekly has a niche audience that favours New Age pursuits, while the daily Star is an internationally respected paper-of-record, so the public holds them to different standards. And it's also true that social media platforms are giving critics more power to question news outlets than they had six years ago.

But I think the return of the scarier diseases (including whooping cough) is behind the recent public backlash on science-deniers. It's one thing to indulge silly New Age beliefs when we're all feeling safe; it's quite another to spend time with Typhoid Mary.

Which brings me to the last miracle I witnessed.

Nosodes, no good

CBC's The Current ran a piece about the lobby to crack down on homeopaths selling nosodes as an alternative to vaccines, and the interviews included a naturopath criticizing the practice.

I listened twice because I couldn't believe my ears.

Alfred Hauk, a naturopath and the chair of the board of the Ontario Association of Naturopathic Doctors, is among the voices calling for more regulation on homeopathy. Although some naturopaths use homeopathic remedies in their practices, he says his profession recognizes the obvious benefits of vaccines.

After hearing a clip of a Vancouver homeopath at Little Mountain Homeopathy, which claims to be one of the few clinics specializing in "homeopathic immunizations," Dr. Hauk did little to disguise his disgust.

"Nosodes are not a substitute for vaccinations," he said, echoing the Health Canada labels on nosodes packages. "It's that black and white: they do not do what vaccinations do. And of the people I know who use homeopathic medicines well, I have never heard them speak like that: they know the science."

I was tempted to send Dr. Hauk a fan letter, but I really think we have to credit the measles for this pocketful of miracles.

Since it blossomed at Disneyland in December, the impact of the disease has been so dazzling that I'm almost sorry to see this instructive run of infections winding down. Soon the fear will fade and we'll go back to normal, arguing that everything is just a matter of opinion and consumer choice, and the free hand of the market should never be restrained.

But for a few glorious months it was nice to see so many people acting like responsible citizens. It kind of makes me wonder what a sudden outbreak of polio might do for the body politic? Of course, if we go back to indulging the anti-vaxxers, we might just get a chance to find out.

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)  [Tyee]

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