National Press Club

Vaccine expert Paul Offit takes on anti-vaccine celebrities, politicians in new book

October 30, 2018 | By Eleanor Herman |

Dr. Paul Offit discussed his book, "Bad Advice Or Why Celebrities Politicians and Activists Aren't Your Best Source Of Health Information” at an Oct. 29 Naational Press Club Headliners Book Rap.

Dr. Paul Offit discussed his book, "Bad Advice Or Why Celebrities Politicians and Activists Aren't Your Best Source Of Health Information” at an Oct. 29 Naational Press Club Headliners Book Rap.

When Paul Offit was five years old, he tied a towel around his neck, leaped into the air, tried to fly like Superman, and hit the ground hard.

“That didn’t prove that I could never fly like Superman,” he explained to an audience at a Headliners’ Book Rap Oct. 29 at the National Press Club. “Just that I didn’t fly during that attempt."

Offit, now a doctor and an award-winning expert on vaccines, immunology and virology, told the story to illustrate why scientists are often careful about what they say.

"It can sound like we are waffling or covering things up," he noted. "Such statements don’t work well when trying to calm the public.”

Offit has been trying to calm the public for many years about the safety of vaccines. In his ninth and latest book, "Bad Advice: Or Why Celebrities, Politicians and Activists Aren’t Your Best Source of Health Information", he offers harrowing stories from his own medical experience to fight back against celebrities and politicians who spread harmful misinformation.

The belief that vaccines can cause autism dates from 1998 when The Lancet, a highly-respected British medical journal, published an article by Dr. Andrew Wakefield claiming that eight children were diagnosed with autism within a month of receiving the Measles-Mumps-Rubella (MMR) vaccine.

“It wasn’t even a study,” Offit said. “It was a series of cases. And then people in the United Kingdom made the choice not to vaccinate their children so thousands of people got measles. Hundreds were hospitalized, and four children died.”

Seventeen other studies could not reproduce Wakefield’s results, Offit said. British medical authorities removed Wakefield from the UK medical register for unethical behavior, misconduct, and fraud. Wakefield’s theories, while largely discredited in scientific circles, have gripped the popular imagination, touted by celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and Gwyneth Paltrow, and politicians including President Donald Trump.

Offit has been known to trail throngs of anti-vaccination protesters in his wake, and the Headliners’ Book Rap was no exception. Before the event, anti-vaxxers passed out literature questioning his science and motives. Numerous audience members repeatedly disrupted the interview, shouting questions and accusing him of lying and taking money from pharmaceutical companies.

“I’m sorry people are upset I made money,” he said, referring to his co-invention of the vaccine for rotovirus, a disease that killed some 2,000 people world-wide every day until widespread inoculation occurred in 2013. Pharmaceutical companies, he noted, have the resources to develop a vaccine.

"I didn’t spend 26 years in a lab with white mice and no windows to make money," Offit said. "I did it to help people. I work in a hospital. I hate seeing children get sick and die. And yet I get accused of being part of some giant conspiracy.”

The event’s moderator, Club Vice President Alison Kodjak, asked Offit about the negative public reaction to his support for vaccines. “It’s shocking to me,” he replied. “All I do is represent the science in a compelling and accurate way.”

Just because one event follows closely on the heels of another, he pointed out, does not necessarily mean the two are related. For instance, one day Offit’s wife, a pediatrician, was preparing a vaccine for a five-year-old when the child went into violent convulsions and later died.

“If that seizure had come five minutes later,” Offit said, “the parents would have blamed the vaccine. Powerful anecdotal evidence isn’t proof. Studies should be reproduceable."

He also recounted his experience with one family who opted not to have their son vaccinated. At 11 months, the boy was infected with a strain of pneumococcus, which a routine vaccine would have prevented, and which caused meningitis and a herniated bran stem.

“We intubated him and saved his life,” Offit said, “but he will never see or walk or speak or hear again. This was a perfectly normal child who could have lived to be 70 or 80 and been a happy productive member of society who was felled by this awful decision.”

Offit discussed the progress made in reducing flu, polio, and Human Papillomavirus (HPV) through vaccines, as well as the slight risks associated with them. An alarming sign of things to come, he said, is the recent rise in measles, which he called “the canary in the coal mine.”

“It’s always the first to come back when people stop getting vaccines,” he explained. “Before the measles vaccine in 1963, in the U.S. there were 48,000 cases and 5,000 deaths a year. Measles makes you sick. A girl in my seventh-grade class died of it. Measles was eradicated in 2000 and because of anti-vaxxers is starting to come back again.”