An antivaccine activist complains about a pro-vaccine conference

A week and a half ago, a conference was held at the NYU Langone Medical Center, Confronting Vaccine Resistance: Strategies for Success. It featured speakers and panelists whom I admire quite a bit, including Paul Offit, the man who is to antivaccine loons Satan, Darth Vader, Voldemort, and Sauron all rolled up into one. Also featured were Richard Pan, the California state senator who co-sponsored SB 277, which passed and is now a law that bans nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates; bioethicist Arthur Caplan, a strong advocate for vaccines; Dorit Reiss, a law school professor and strong advocate for vaccines who over the last couple of years has become a favored target for the antivaccine movement; and Bernard Dreyer, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. As I put it at the time, it was as though the greatest enemies of the antivaccine movement were all concentrated in one place. It was thus utterly irresistible to antivaccine cranks, and, not surprisingly, the VAXXED bus, Del Bigtree, and a bunch of antivaccine activists showed up. One of them even harassed Paul Offit in the cafeteria, asking him to come down to the bus to be interviewed. Dr. Offit responded in exactly the fashion that was required.

Hilariously, more tha a week later, antivaccine loons are still very upset about the fact that the conference was held in the first place, gleeful that they think they have something they can criticize Paul Offit for, and delusional about what they think they can accomplish because of the conference. In other words, it’s just antivaccine activists being antivaccine loons, which is how they usually behave. Passenger one on the train to delusionville is Laura Hayes. We’ve met Ms. Hayes before, for instance introducing a screening of the antivaccine propaganda film VAXXED by referring to the vaccination program as “this ever-increasing medical tyranny, this abominable Vaccine Holocaust, this present evil.” It’s a metaphor she likes to use a lot. This time around, she’s very, very unhappy that the NYU Langone Medical Center held a pro-vaccine conference where medical students and faculty were the main attendies and the message was how to overcome vaccine resistance in parents. In fact, she’s so upset and deluded that she’s been pestering NYU Langone and writing about it on the antivaccine blog Age of Autism:

Last week, on Monday, Nov. 21st, I called the Office of the President at NYU to express that I was both disappointed and disturbed by a lecture being presented at NYU, specifically, the lecture by Paul Offit, Richard Pan, and Dorit Reiss titled "Confronting Vaccine Resistance: Strategies for Success". I spoke to the woman who answered the phone in President Andrew Hamilton's office, Kyle, for 10-15 minutes. She was polite and professional, and heard me out, which I greatly appreciated. I gave her my contact information in hopes that Mr. Hamilton, or someone in his office, would call me back to discuss my concerns further. I did not hear back from anyone.

Today, I called again, and spoke to Kyle for the second time. Again, she was polite and professional, and heard me out. I inquired as to whether or not NYU was going to host another lecture to counter and correct the information that was presented at NYU last week. She did not know, as the President's office had not been in contact with the Director of Langone Medical Center. She ended up giving me the number for Langone, and told me I could email Mr. Hamilton, as he was presently out of town. I followed through on both counts.

I called Langone Medical Center, and first spoke with a woman in the Office of Communications. She transferred me to the Director of Media Relations, Mr. James Devitt. I told Mr. Devitt my concerns about NYU hosting the lecture and speakers that it did last week, and asked whether a subsequent lecture would be offered to counter and correct what was shared with NYU's medical staff and students. He did not know anything about the lecture to which I was referring, so he took down my name and number, and said he would check into it and get back to me.

I must admit, I felt sorry for the people who had to answer the phone when Laura Hayes called. It reminded me yet again why I would be terrible at a job in PR or having to deal with cranks who call to complain. Chances are, I’d be out of Kyle’s job within a few weeks, if that. Be that as it may. Here we have an antivaccine activist complaining to the president of NYU because the NYU Langone Medical Center held a conference that, from a scientific, medical, and academic standpoint, was utterly uncontroversial. Maybe she was every bit as polite as she claimed. Probably she was. That doesn’t change the fact that she was complaining about a conference that was completely unobjectionable to anyone aware of vaccine science, particularly pediatricians and public health officials, because it presented a science-based view of vaccines and didn’t accept her fixed belief that vaccines cause autism and are the equivalent of the Holocaust. Let’s just put it this way. Just because Hayes thinks that what was presented at that conference was support for the “autism Holocaust” doesn’t make it so.

Her letter, however, does make for some seriously hilarious reading:

I am writing to express my grave disappointment at NYU's hosting a lecture for its medical staff and students last week titled Confronting Vaccine Resistance: Strategies for Success, with speakers Paul Offit, Richard Pan, and Dorit Reiss, and moderator Arthur Caplan.

A summary of what was shared by these speakers can be listened to here, as lecture attendee, Dr. Suzanne Humphries, gave an interview immediately following the lecture:

Dr. Humphries opens her recap with: "It was more social engineering, brainwashing of medical students."

Not surprisingly, Hayes reveals nothing about Humphries’ background. We’ve discussed her before here on a fair number of occasions. She is affiliated with major antivaccine groups. She’s also known for referring to vaccines as “disease matter.” An MD she may have, but she’s no longer a physician in any sense of the word, if you know what I mean. As for her characterization of the talks as “brainwashing of medical students,” well, one woman’s brainwashing is another person’s training, and medical training is supposed to be based on science. Science doesn’t support the beliefs of antivaccinationists that vaccines cause autism, autoimmune diseases, and all the other conditions and diseases antivaccinationists like to blame on vaccines. It does, however, support the contention that vaccines are effective and safe and that they save lives. It’s therefore entirely appropriate that medical students be taught how to persuade vaccine-averse parents to vaccinate their children.

Hayes seems particularly annoyed at Humphries’ report, which Age of Autism’s “media editor” Anne Dachel transcribed. Not surprisingly, at a pro-vaccine conference, the speakers were not exactly enamored of antivaccinationists and even made jokes about them. It’s even less surprising that they view Dr. Bob Sears negatively. (Certainly I do.) It’s also quite expected that the speakers recommended making non-medical exemptions more difficult to obtain. I can’t help but point out that Dorit Reiss was the one who allowed Humphries to attend in the first place. It’s not as though this were some sort of secret cabal or secret meeting. If it were, no one who wasn’t prescreened and absolutely reliable would have been allowed in that auditorium.

Not surprisingly, Hayes doesn’t see things the way we do:

I am wondering if you were aware of this lecture at NYU's Langone Medical Center? All of the speakers and the moderator are in favor of overriding parental rights when it comes to vaccination. This despite the fact that not one vaccine has ever been proven safe, efficacious, or necessary, and despite the fact that millions have now been injured or killed by vaccines, and despite the fact that the recommended and mandated lists for vaccines continue to grow, without any type of proper or ethical testing. And the definitive study, a comparison study between the vaccinated and the completely unvaccinated, continues to be refused to be done by those profiting from vaccines, which is a statement in and of itself.

I almost feel sorry for Hayes. Almost. If you start writing about how vaccines have never been demonstrated to be efficacious or safe and how “millions” have been “injured or killed by vaccines,” what sort of reaction do you expect from a university president? Hint: It’s highly unlikely to be sympathetic or favorable, although I did find Hayes attempt to appeal to President Hamilton’s background as a chemist chuckle-worthy:

As a distinguished chemist, I hope you will be interested to utilize the link at the end of my presentation which will take you to a listing of all vaccine package inserts. Please look at the amounts of aluminum, mercury, formaldehyde, polysorbate 80, and other ingredients. Please analyze the clinical testing methods, and note the lack of placebos and proper control groups, not to mention the incredibly short clinical observation periods. With a chemist's knowledge, do you deem it safe to be injecting these ingredients into pregnant women, fetuses, newborns, infants, toddlers, young children, right on up to the very elderly, with no pause?

Please update me regarding any actions you take to address and refute the inaccurate, unethical, and dangerous information that was shared at NYU by Paul Offit, Richard Pan, and Dorit Reiss.

I’m sure President Andrew Hamilton will get right on that. Definitely. Right on that. Right away. I’m sure he’ll read all those presentations and rants.

If Hamilton is a “distinguished chemist,” no doubt he recognized Hayes’ nonsense for the nonsense that it clearly is. The beauty of Hayes’ letter is that she thinks that Hamilton’s background as a chemist means that he’ll accept her claims. In reality, if you’re a chemist (unless you’re Boyd Haley), it’s the exact opposite. If you’re a chemist, it’s far more likely than not that you’ll recognize Hayes’ nonsense for the scientific nonsense it is.

I’m actually rather grateful to Laura Hayes for writing her letter. It’s a perfect example of the delusional world that antivaccinationists live in. Hayes actually believes that the vaccination program is a holocaust and that, if only she can get the President of NYU to read her claims and evidence, she can convince him that the vaccination program is a holocaust too.

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Hayes is now Loon 1720, just BTW. Her raving in the AoA comments tries even my patience.

I know that antivaxers are irrational, and using rational arguments against them cannot work. It's like John Sweeney and the Scientologists (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxqR5NPhtLI, very close parallels to the Offit clip in fact): all they will do is mess with your head and potentially cause you to lose it.

So the question is: what *can* be done to combat this egregious stupidity? You can't fix the malice, you can't stop the cult-like repetition of their refuted dogmas, and you can't (at least in the US) shut them down. So what can be done?

By Guy Chapman (not verified) on 30 Nov 2016 #permalink

An MD who doesn't know that the role of a chemist is not the same as that of toxicologist? Even an undergrad in the sciences would or should know that. Yet, I encountered the same ignorance in at least one MD I happened to see for a checkup during a conversation on matters of mutual interest.

Alerted to a recent post by Dana Ullman at a site called GreenMedInfo, I was appalled by the sensational nature of the content. (What does Dennis Walter take for the nausea, or she immune?) Anti-vaccination, anti-pharma, and pro herbal medicines and homeopathy. Even though the writers relate the results of scientific studies (animal and human) on one plant and another, it's obviously more for entertainment and ad revenues than anything else. When science suits them, pandering to ignorant extremists with little understanding of medicine must be profitable.

To Guy Chapman's lament, "what can be done", all we can do at this point is to address one fire at a time, and the more sites like this one the better.

By Lighthorse (not verified) on 30 Nov 2016 #permalink

An MD she may have, but she’s no longer a physician in any sense of the word, if you know what I mean.

Unfortunately, Humphries still has an active medical license ( http://www.vahealthprovider.com/results_generalinfo.asp?License_No=0101… ), though based on her CV she will soon (after 2017) be unable to claim being a "board-certified nephrologist" unless she very quickly re-certifies in internal medicine ( http://drsuzanne.net/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/CV-11.5.21031.pdf )

These anti-vaccine MDs with licenses need to be stripped of their licenses ASAP. It is shameful that the large medical groups like the AMA, AAP and AAFP don't publicly condemn quacks like Humphries (and Sears, Gordon, Mercola, Tenpenny, etc) and then file complaints with their state medical board demanding their licenses be pulled.

At least Dr. Offit took the AAP to task at the NYU meeting for how ridiculous the AAP looks for being pro-vaccine while letting AV loons like Sears and Gordon be FAAP members--but as long as AVers like Hayes can pull actively practicing and licensed MDs like Humphries out of their trash bag of tricks, it will be harder to counter the bogus claims of anti-vaccinationists.

By Chris Hickie (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

The really scary thing about Dr. Humphries is it looks like she's been involved in medical education. Not since 2011, per her CV. That's good news. Apparently she's in private practice. I found it interesting that she says on her website that "After leaving the hospital system in good standing, of my own volition in 2011, I have been furthering my research and conducting my own private practice in Maine and Virginia."

Funny, I've come and gone from a lot of jobs but I've never described leaving a job in such a way.

Everybody who leaves in good standing and of their own volition, puts that on their resume, right? Because it's not as if it implies that it was leave or be fired, or anything.

By Guy Chapman (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

In reply to by Panacea (not verified)

I don't expect anything from the AMA, considering their endorsement of Price for HHS Secretary.

When did it become the responsibility of a school's administration to humour wack-jobs? I'm afraid that I would last an even shorter time in the job then you would Orac. My first and probably last response would be something along the lines of: "Are you f*cking kidding me? I will not be bothering the president of this academy of learning with your stupid mind-farts. Go piss up a rope and bother someone else with your idiocy. Good-bye."

As a very wise man once said, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.

Oh and for those out there who believe autistic people are lost, damaged, or other-wise defective and need to be saved by your abuse. Go to the highest building you can find and prove gravity wrong.

By Anonymous Pseudonym (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

I’m sure President Andrew Hamilton will get right on that. Definitely. Right on that. Right away. I’m sure he’ll read all those presentations and rants.

I read a story once (possibly apocryphal) that Abraham Lincoln would write letters of thanks to authors who sent them copies of their books which said:
"Be sure I will lose no time in reading it."

By Julian Frost (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

When did it become the responsibility of a school’s administration to humour wack-jobs?

Kyle's job is to handle these nutcases so that President Hamilton doesn't have to. I presume he has the required skills for the job, chief among which is the ability to suffer fools (a skill that you, Orac, and I all lack). I've seen this movie often enough to know what happens if Kyle were to respond the way we would: Ms. Hayes goes public and gets to play the martyr card. At that point Hamilton would have no choice to get involved, and that would be bad because it would take time away from his job, which is to advocate and raise funds for the university.

Oh and for those out there who believe autistic people are lost, damaged, or other-wise defective and need to be saved by your abuse. Go to the highest building you can find and prove gravity wrong.

In announcing that his then recently published paper in Social Text was a hoax, Alan Sokal invited anyone who thought that the laws of physics were mere social conventions to transgress those conventions from his apartment window--at least at the time, he lived on the twenty-first floor. You can guess how many of the people he was criticizing accepted that invitation.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

To the esteemed Dr Humphries, distinguished chemist extraordinaire: I have received and reviewed your letter of concerns from the periodic table. After lengthy and careful consideration and debate of these concerns, I drafted my evidence-based response as follows:

nuts!

Sincerely.....

Did Ms Hayes et al possibly ingest some of those magic mushrooms from the NYU Psych department before the conference?

After that pro vaccine conference, someone went to the trouble of frownie facing on Facebook all the photos I took of Paul Offit speaking at CSICon, and another frownie faced the the FBook album containing those photos & posted a comment linking to a video of an electronic parrot saying it thinks I'm a turd.

We may as well surrender; the pro vaccine movement has been dealt a fatal blow from which we can never recover.

By Karl Withakay (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

Complicating Ms. Hayes' effort to get NYU Langone Medical Center to give equal time to antivaxers, is the fact that one of NYU's star faculty members is Art Caplan, chief of bioethics. He doesn't mince words about physicians who promote antivax ideology.

"When politicians ignore the evidence, fail to cite appropriate medical authorities, and rely on hearsay and rumor, with the result that people — out of ignorance or error — don’t vaccinate their children, we can and should deny them elective office. When a doctor does so, we should demand that he forfeit his right to use his medical degree to misinform, confuse or lie."

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/revoke-the-license-of-any-docto…

By Dangerous Bacon (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

Dr. Offit's use of the F word definitely changes the way I look at him.

I kike him a lot more.

DB@17: It doesn't help that her letter involves some usage of "fact" of which I was previously unaware. I don't think that word means what she thinks it means.

I see she advocates a certain study which, as Orac has repeatedly explained, cannot be performed in an ethical manner.

Oh, and about those millions of allegedly injured children: If vaccines had caused one million injuries, that would be about 1% of the US population. If something like that were really happening, it would be pretty difficult to conceal. As the number of participants in a real conspiracy rises beyond 3, the probability that one of the participants will spill the beans rapidly approaches 1. Any conspiracy requiring the participation of thousands of people, as this theoretical conspiracy would, is facially ridiculous.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

Today, Null's noontime woo-fest featured Mary Holland
( second half of show; should be available at prn.fm) who, as staff, was able to attend the conference: she didn't much like what she heard. As a legal expert, she gives her medical opinion as per usual.

By Denice Walter (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

Ms. Hayes goes public and gets to play the martyr card.

Well, I'd guess she knew her complaint would be politely ignored, and playing the martyr card about that was the point of the exercise form the get-go. IOW, everything in her letter to Hamilton is not written for him, but for her audience at AoA. 'Why yes they should listen to us! How dare they deny our facts! How can they! A chemist especially!'

With a chemist’s knowledge, do you deem it safe to be injecting these ingredients into pregnant women, fetuses, newborns, infants, toddlers, young children, right on up to the very elderly, with no pause?

'Of course he does!, So why doesn't he say so?'

Bingo, Pharma shill.

So, yes, Hayes letter is "a perfect example of the delusional world that antivaccinationists live in." But not because she believes she can convince the President of NYU that the vaccination program is a holocaust. Because she believes he knows it's a holocaust, and his non-response, his sponsorship of the Langone event, his refusal to "address and refute the inaccurate, unethical, and dangerous information that was shared at NYU" are proof of the perfidy of the massive conspiracy to injure all the babies.

Hayes' letter is all about creating an opportunity for her to write a post for AoA, winning her brownie points within her tribe, expressing outrage, and reinforcing us-against-them mutual self-righteous congratulation.

Which is to say, it was precisely Sokal-esque.

I wonder if the antivaxx movement is primarily made up of Munchausen patients - people pretending to be ill and intentionally self-harming to create that perception, or to have children with serious illness inflicted by the parent, just for attention.

I mean if the debate includes the right to throw wild accusations out there why not dip right into Law and Order from the start.

"I wonder if the antivaxx movement is primarily made up of Munchausen patients – people pretending to be ill and intentionally self-harming to create that perception, or to have children with serious illness inflicted by the parent, just for attention."

Ehh, I'm generally more generous than that. I assume most people who make personal claims of specific instances of harm from vaccines just have a desperate need to assign cause and blame for genuine problems.

By Karl Withakay (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

... and specifically, a cause outside themselves that they have some chance of controlling.

By Karl Withakay (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

I assume most people who make personal claims of specific instances of harm from vaccines just have a desperate need to assign cause and blame for genuine problems.

Some people come to it innocently: they find out that the kid has autism or some other condition, and they use Google or some other search engine to learn more about it. Many of them don't have the skill or specialized knowledge to evaluate the sources they find there, of which some are accurate and some not. That's ordinary ignorance, for which I cannot fault anybody. Many such people go on to find good information about it, at which point they are no longer ignorant.

The problem is that many such parents, including many of the most vocal on the subject, continue to hold those opinions after it's pointed out that those opinions do not fit the facts. That is willful ignorance, and I take a much harder line against that than against ordinary ignorance.

Yes, it's human nature to look for ways for the buck to stop elsewhere. If genes are the cause of your child's problems, that implies that your genes are less than perfect. Some parents cannot accept this.

One of the ironies here is the tendency of vocal anti-vax parents of autistic children to view those children as seriously damaged--in some cases, not fully human. These parents proceed to act in ways that ensure that their kid will never have anything even vaguely resembling a normal life. Other parents of high-functioning autistic kids do a better job of treating those kids as people, and many of those kids go on to live as normal a life as their condition allows.

I have mentioned previously that I suspect (I don't know for sure because it's none of my business) the son of a couple in my neighborhood is autistic. It's obvious that this young man (now in his 20s) isn't completely normal, and I suspect he will always need someone to take care of him, but he is able to go about a daily routine to some extent, he has attended the local university, and he has even had a girlfriend or two. His parents gave him a chance to develop as much as he can. Many autistic children of vocal anti-vax parents never get that chance.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

I have a cousin who had an older sister who suffered from congenital rubella syndrome who won't vaccinate any children she might have because, "I'm vegan and they make vaccines from aborted fetuses. That's not vegan."

I don't even know how to respond to that.

By Joel Williams (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

"most people who make personal claims of specific instances of harm from vaccines" =/= "movement anti-vaxers'.

Zach's reference to Law and Order indicates he's not positing Munchausen's literally. There's an entry for Munchausen's on the "TV Tropes" websites, due to the frequency with which this very rare syndrome shows up in medical dramas "exaggerated it to the point of absurdity at times."

As metaphor and hyperbole, Munchausen's-by-proxy seems a useful hypothesis for understanding the psycho-pathology of anti-vax extremists. Some of us have discussed all-in AV in terms of NPD, and while it might not fit the clinical definition of that, I for one think there's enough markers of narcissism there that the basic concept is useful in understanding and discussing the phenomenon.

AFAIK, both Munchausen's and NPD are considered to often be products of some early-life trauma, and if something like that is at work in movement anti-vax, that would help explain it's relationships to facts, and it's dogged persistence in the face of 'reason'. It also should help us separate the dedicated minions of AoA/Vaxxed/etc. from that broader group of parents who are just reaching for cause and blame in the face of genuine problems, and from the even broader group of prospective parents who are so frightened by the prospect of facing the genuine problems of caring for an autistic kid that they are grasping onto something they have some chance of controlling.

Joel -- find out if they've imbibed on the half and half. That's grounds for an immediate loss of their vegan powers.

Joel@26: I found a USA Today story on the subject (scroll down to Myth 9). They quote Paul Offit as saying that human cells are filtered out of the vaccines before they are given to children. They also quote the National Catholic Bioethics Center on the subject:

[Catholics are] morally free to use the vaccine, regardless of its historical association with abortion. The reason is that the risk to public health, if one chooses not to vaccinate, outweighs the legitimate concern about the origins of the vaccine. This is especially important for parents, who have a moral obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around them. ... It is important to note that descendant cells are not the cells of the aborted child. They never, themselves, formed a part of the victim's body.

It won't help with many hardcore anti-vax people because they consider Paul Offit to be Satan's right-hand man, but it may help persuade parents who are persuadable. I can't tell from what you have posted whether your cousin is in the former or latter category.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

@Joel Williams

There might be something in this post that you might be able to use.

@Delphine:

Just going to leave this here.

Citizen-commenter* Doug attended at least one day of the trial and has been posting updates in this thread.

* Hi, Dok.

Anonymous Pseudonym @11: It became the responsibility of a school’s administration to humor wack-jobs the first time that one of those whack-jobs was a wealthy alumni, parent or donor.

More often than you might think the people who donate large sums to universities have some kind of pet theory, monomania or something else that the administration feels obligated to accommodate in order to secure the funding. Usually it's harmless ("I will make a very large gift to the library if you take my carefully curated archive of the writings of a Finnish sci-fi author no one has ever heard of."), but some times it can be problematic.

By JustaTech (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

MarkN@ #14

I'm reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) response from the owner of the Cleveland Browns to someone who complaining that fans were throwing things during games which went something like "I need to let you know that some a$$hole is signing your name to stupid letters."

By shay simmons (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

including Paul Offit, the man who is to antivaccine loons Satan, Darth Vader, Voldemort, and Sauron all rolled up into one

Based on some comments I've read on YouTube, you ain't far behind, Doc.

If a man can be judged by the people who hate him, you're doing something right.

By shay simmons (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink

@ JustaTech #32;

Spot on. If Laura Hayes had enough money or connections, some poor program at NYU would being bullied to sponsor a follow-up lecture by Suzanne Humphries to "to counter and correct what was shared with NYU’s medical staff and students." It would take a huge check already deposited in the bank, though, for NYU to remove the strike-through and put the institution behind an assertion that this amounted to a 'correction'. What they probably would do is include some statement from the speaker, clearly attributed to that individual, offered without endorsement of its validity, only to the relevance of the broader discussion .

It's all moot in this case since Hayes doesn't have the juice, and is better served for her own ends by NYU NOT responding to her request and complaint in any way. I also assume anyone in AV land who does have the kind of juice required would be looking for something with much more bang-for-the-buck to spend it on.

shay@33: The letter you refer to was genuine. The complaint was about fans throwing paper airplanes.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 01 Dec 2016 #permalink