After PBS’s Frontline, “The Vaccine War,” aired in 2010, I wrote the producers a letter. Their decision to re-air their one-sided and irresponsible documentary tonight has prompted me to republish it.
When “The Vaccine War” first aired live, the voice-over falsely identified me as someone who did not vaccinate my children. This 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. PBS wanted to create a vaccine war. A war that doesn’t exist.
We threatened to sue
My lawyer threatened PBS with a lawsuit.
In response, they corrected the voice-over to the Frontline episode, “The Vaccine War,” for accuracy. But the damage was done: hate mail and death threats came in from around the country and even from around the world.
Seven years have passed.
Here in Ashland we’ve had our share of chickenpox but there have been no serious outbreaks of dangerous infectious diseases or a single death from vaccine-preventable infectious disease in our community of some 20,000.
Cancer and chronic illness rising
At the same time, however, our small town has grieved the tragic loss of several children from cancer, including a boy named Jack and our neighbor’s son Michael and a girl from the Siskiyou School named Mathilda. My dear friend’s brother died in a car accident. We’ve also had our share of other tragedies, including young people attempting suicide, engaging in self-harming behavior (like cutting), drug overdoses, suicides, and running away from home.
There are many, many other problems facing children in Ashland. Our children’s teachers report seeing more students than ever before with:
Auto-immune disorders like Type 1 juvenile diabetes
Debilitating food allergies
In addition, cases of autism, sadly, have continued to rise
It makes for good television to create a vaccine war, but I find it unfortunate that PBS continues to perpetuate a false dichotomy. They pretend that this is a question of smart educated scientists on one side versus crazy hippie parents on the other.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
The best-educated, most well read parents choose to delay or forgo some vaccines
More doctors than ever before, including Aviva Romm, M.D.; Larry Palevsky, M.D.; Kelly Sutton, M.D.; Paul Thomas, M.D.; Kelly Brogan, M.D.; Cindy Schneider, M.D., Rachael Ross, M.D.; Mark Sibley, M.D.; Cornelia Franz, M.D.; Bob Sears, M.D.; John Trainer, M.D.; Maya Klein, M.D.; Howard Morningstar, M.D.; Deborah Gordon, M.D.; Cammy Benton, M.D.; Meredith McBride, M.D.; Tommy Redwood, M.D.; Lonna Larsh, M.D.; Elizabeth Mumper, M.D.; Randy Naidoo, M.D.; Deborah Gordon, M.D.; Prachi Garodia, M.D.; Bose Ravenel, M.D.; Meryl Nass, M.D.; Kenneth Katz, M.D.; Shira Miller, M.D.; Stuart Fischbein, M.D., and literally tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, more, are now speaking out against our current vaccination schedule and in favor of a safer and more evidence-based immunization program.
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 a post that is no longer available (but one that you can use the Wayback machine to access via this now obsolete link) after seeing the documentary.
Fighting infectious disease matters
What PBS did not bother to show you is that I have seen firsthand the devastating effects of infectious diseases. My experience does not fit the agenda of pretending this is a polarized black and white debate, a “war.”
I lived in Niger, West Africa, one of the poorest countries in the world, where we saw 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.
Hepatitis B at birth for low-risk babies makes no scientific sense
But despite my concern over infectious diseases, I’m more concerned by the fact that our current American vaccination schedule does not take the best evidence and the most rigorous science into account. Here in America we vaccinate every newborn for a sexually transmitted disease (hepatitis B) when Scandinavia countries do not recommend this series of shots for low-risk families. It’s so anti-scientific it makes my head spin.
So many mainstream doctors agree that we should not give the newborn dose of the hepatitis B shot that they privately advise their patients to politely decline it. Does that sound like a vaccine war to you? 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 my decision to decline hep B does not put any child or immune-compromised person at risk.Unless, that is, my baby shares body fluids with your baby,
Neither does tetanus
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. At the same time, at least eight children a year became paralyzed as a result of the vaccine. Because the live oral polio vaccine—a vaccine I’ve 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.
There’s no vaccine war
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 in 2010:
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.
Published: March 24, 2015
Last update: March 25, 2022