The XX Factor

The Least Important Million-Dollar Question About Childhood Vaccinations

With two little words, author Amy Wallace, childhood vaccination proponent Dr. Paul Offit, and Wired ‘s editorial staff gave those who disagreed with the magazine’s recent feature , An Epidemic of Fear: How Panicked Parents Skipping Shots Endangers Us All , a hook upon which to hang a lawsuit-and gave every other news organ in the country another reason to step quietly back from the vaccination debate. “She lies,” Offit said of vaccine “safety advocate” Barbara Loe Fisher. Now Fisher wants him to pay.

When my first child was born in 2001, nonvaccinating parents seemed relatively rare. By the time my youngest was born five years later, I was defending my decision to vaccinate him on schedule to crunchier parents while second-guessing myself, and that’s thanks, at least in part, to the advocacy of Barbara Loe Fisher and her National Vaccine Information Center. Whooping cough seemed a distant and minimal possibility, whereas the chemical concoction the pediatrician planned to shoot into my baby’s plump thigh was bubbling around in the hypodermic for anyone to see-plus, it was clearly going to make him scream. The shot represented immediate pain and unknowable risks, while not vaccinating was what good parents did-the ones with the vegan diets, the wooden toys, and the cloth diapers. It couldn’t hurt (nobody ever gets the mumps any more). It might help (the government and pharmaceutical companies have been wrong about what’s safe before, right?). And it was nobody’s business but ours.

Last fall’s article in Wired represented the flip side of that argument and was an indirect result of Loe’s success at getting her position heard. Our collective protection against diptheria, rubella, and such requires “herd immunity,” which in turn depends on herd action-and in recent years, enough members of the Western human herd have been free-riding on the rest of us that the whole system may be at risk. Writer Amy Wallace let her subject, Dr. Paul Offit, make the case that vaccines don’t just protect the individually vaccinated, they protect us all-adults whose immunity has worn off, kids unvaccinated for legitimate reasons like egg allergies, or those for whom the vaccination wasn’t, for one reason or another, effective. In other words, if an unvaccinated kid gets the measles, he could be fine (what with that healthy vegan diet and all), but the grandmother he coughed on in the grocery store and his classmate whose shot didn’t take correctly might be toast.

But in making that argument, Dr. Offit allowed his frustration with a primary advocate of vaccine caution (to say the least) to get the better of him. “She lies,” he said of Fisher, and those two words gave Ms. Fisher (and her attorney, a speaker against “mandatory vaccinations” at a recent autism event ) an opening. They’re suing Wired, Condé Nast, Dr. Offit, and Amy Wallace for a million dollars. Ironically, in context, the words were actually something of a compliment: “Barbara Fisher inflames people against me. And wrongly. I’m in this for the same reason she is. I care about kids,” Dr. Offit went on.

That context-and the fact that Ms. Fisher is a public figure, generally expected to take stuff like this on the chin-makes it unlikely that she’ll be successful in her suit. But what she may succeed in doing is turning other magazines off her topic of choice, and that doesn’t do anyone any good. Ms. Fisher says she’s not anti-vaccine, but rather for “informed and voluntary vaccination.” If that’s true, Ms. Fisher (and her lawyer, who claims to have ” maintained an abiding conviction to achieve full First Amendment protection for the freedoms of speech and press “) should simply let Dr. Offit be heard. An “informed” decision about childhood vaccinations should include a read of the Wired piece and of any and all other information Dr. Offit, Ms. Fisher, and others can get out there. Vaccines are safe and effective, but they’re that way in part because of the advocacy of Ms. Fisher and those like her. Silence, in this case, serves no one.