After PBS’s Frontline aired five years ago, I wrote the producers a letter. Their decision to re-air their one-sided and irresponsible documentary tonight has prompted me to republish the letter in a slightly edited form.
When the show first aired live, the voice-over falsely identified me as someone who did not vaccinate my children, despite the fact that I repeated several times to the producer during the many hours that she was filming me that I was (and still am) pro-vaccine.
My lawyer threatened PBS with a lawsuit.
The voice-over was corrected for accuracy. But the damage was done: hate mail and death threats came in from around the country.
Five years have passed.
Here in Ashland we have had our share of chickenpox but there have been no outbreaks of dangerous infectious diseases or a single death from vaccine-preventable infectious disease in our community of some 20,000 people. At the same time, however, our small town has grieved the loss of at least two children from cancer: Jack and my neighbor’s son Michael; another youngster is battling brain cancer; my friend’s brother died in a car accident, and we’ve had our share of other tragedies in Southern Oregon, including young people attempting suicide, engaging in self-harming behavior (like cutting), drug overdoses, and high school students running away from home.
There are other problems facing children in Ashland. Our children’s teachers report seeing more students than ever before with debilitating food allergies, asthma, and other auto-immune disorders like Type 1 juvenile diabetes. Cases of autism continue to rise.
It makes for good television but I find it unfortunate that PBS continues to perpetuate a false dichotomy: smart educated scientists on one side versus crazy hippie parents on the other.
The truth is that the best-educated and most intelligent Americans are choosing to delay or forgo some childhood vaccinations.
PBS did their best to make me look like a “total asshole,” to borrow a term from popular “science” writer Seth Mnookin who used those words to describe me in this public forum after seeing the documentary.
What PBS did not bother to show you, because it does not fit in with their agenda of pretending this is a polarized black and white debate (a “war”), is that I have seen firsthand the devastating effects of infectious diseases. I have lived in Niger, West Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world, and seen people who were terribly paralyzed by polio and ravaged by measles, which can be life-threatening in a place without proper nutrition, good hygiene, and clean water. I’ve seen polio in America too. Our neighbor in Cabbagetown in Atlanta was a polio survivor, as was my friend high school friend Jenna’s father. I agree that we should not downplay the possible harms of infectious diseases.
But despite my concern over infectious diseases, I am more concerned by the fact that our current American vaccination schedule does not take the best evidence and the most rigorous science into account. That here in America we vaccinate every newborn for a sexually transmitted disease (hepatitis B) when no country in Scandinavia recommends this series of shots for low-risk families is so anti-scientific it makes my head spin.
So many mainstream doctors agree that the newborn dose of the hepatitis B shot is misguided that they privately advise their patients to politely decline the vaccine. These same doctors choose to forgo the vaccine for their own infants, as any scientifically-minded thinking person would also do.
Those of you who want to hate on those doctors and parents making individual choices for their children about vaccines should keep in mind that unless my baby shares body fluids with your baby, my decision to decline hep B in no way puts any child or immune-compromised person at risk.
That we vaccinate babies who are too small to crawl or walk (and hence have no risk factor) against tetanus also makes no scientific sense. Yes, there is a “scientific” reason for the early tetanus vaccine, but it is not one that has anything to do with tetanus (and since tetanus cannot be “caught” from another person, a parent’s decision not to vaccinate against tetanus also puts no other child at risk.)
PBS also did not mention that for eight years in America there were 0 cases of wild polio, yet eight children a year were paralyzed as a result of the vaccine. Because the live oral polio vaccine–a vaccine I have had twice–was so reactive, it was discontinued and replaced by a safer vaccine.
PBS chose to use a controversial popular actress as a spokesperson against the current vaccination schedule. They did not mention that the late Dr. Bernardine Healy, health editor of U.S. News & World Report and former director of the National Institutes of Health, publicly acknowledged that vaccine safety studies are inadequate and that more research is still needed.
Despite the media’s love of a “war,” you actually can be pro-vaccine and against the current schedule.
The bottom line: We all care about the same thing: keeping every child in America safe and healthy. If our current vaccine schedule were actually doing that, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Without further ado, here’s the letter I wrote to PBS five years ago:
May 17, 2010
To The Producers:
Thank you for your recent episode about vaccines, “The Vaccine War.” While I was deeply disturbed by how the final version of the film turned out, I am grateful to see this issue on national television.
However, Frontline got it dead wrong when it reported that I “chose not to vaccinate” my own children. As I told your producers during more than three hours of on-camera interviews, I am pro-vaccine. But, like hundreds of thousands of other parents (most of whom remain quiet on this issue for fear of negative repercussions that I have experienced firsthand since the film was broadcasted), I am also concerned that the current vaccination regime may be doing more harm than good to America’s children.
Contrary to what was stated in the film, my children are vaccinated. They are not vaccinated according to CDC guidelines and they are not vaccinated as fully as some of the doctors you interviewed in your film would like, but it is utterly false to assert that they are not vaccinated at all.
I am glad to see that you have edited the voice-over to correct this false statement, but the film still fundamentally misstates the view of vaccinations held by me and many others who have given the matter serious thought: Vaccines can help prevent fatal diseases and should be offered when a risk of exposure to those diseases is present, but the current CDC recommendations for vaccinations may be too many, too soon for many children.
I am not anti-vaccine, I am pro-questions. Parents should feel free to question their healthcare providers before agreeing to injections that contain substances whose effects may not be fully understood. After asking the questions, I chose to vaccinate my children selectively. You knew that and you should have reported it the first time around.
I can only theorize that you made this mistake because the producers got carried away by the central premise of the film, which is flawed: that the disagreements over vaccines are a “war” between the medical establishment and people who in effect reject scientific evidence.
In fact, there is a lively debate that includes these factions, but includes many more in a middle ground—doctors like Jay Gordon, M.D. and Robert W. Sears, M.D. (whose balanced views and detailed interviews were both cut from the final version of the film) and well-educated parents and researchers like me who agree that some vaccines do more good than harm, but decline to inject their children with every vaccine their doctors tell them to at exactly the time the doctors suggest.
You should have correctly reported not only the facts about my family, but my views on vaccines, even if they did not fit neatly into the framework of your film.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning journalist, Fulbright grantee, and a champion of children’s health and well-being. A sought-after speaker, she has been researching and writing about issues related to children’s health for over a decade. She is the author/editor of seven books, including Your Baby, Your Way, finalist for a Books For a Better Life Award and (with Dr. Paul Thomas, M.D.) The Vaccine-Friendly Plan (Ballantine, 2016). Her articles have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and on the cover of Smithsonian magazine. She has a B.A. from Cornell University, an M.A. from the University of California at Berkeley, and a Ph.D. from Emory. She has taught literature in inner city Atlanta; appeared live on prime-time TV in France; and worked on a child survival campaign in Niger, West Africa. She lives in Southern Oregon with her husband and four children.