the vaccine war

FRONTLINE Editors' Response

To date, FRONTLINE has received more than 2,600 comments and letters regarding The Vaccine War, and as readers can see, there is a wide range of views on the issues surrounding childhood vaccines as well as FRONTLINE's report.

While we're unable to respond to all the points raised by viewers, we'd like to call attention to the following concerns about the film that were cited by many:

  • Many viewers said the film shortchanged the vaccine-hesitant camp by only including the voices of skeptical mothers and not doctors like Dr. Robert Sears, who is also concerned about vaccines and has developed an alternative vaccine schedule that differs from the CDC's.

    We want to point out that Dr. Sears is a vaccine supporter. He makes clear in his FRONTLINE interview that his alternative vaccine schedule is based more on "common sense" and "logic" than on science or safety studies. "I think it's an approach that parents feel safer about," Dr. Sears told FRONTLINE, "and I would like to see the CDC do some safety research that compares a staggered, spread-out vaccine schedule and compares the rates of reactions and severe side effects to the current CDC schedule."

    Clearly the film would have been richer if we'd been able to fully engage Dr. Sears' views on the issue of the vaccine schedule. However, we felt getting into this opened up a number of important journalistic questions about what's known -- and not known -- about the potential harms of various vaccine schedules -- and this, unfortunately, fell outside the scope of this one-hour film.

    We believe we repeatedly raised -- and allowed others to raise -- concerns about the bloated vaccine schedule (up to 35 inoculations in the first six years of a child's life). And we did this despite the fact that established science has found that the number of antigens is negligible compared to the germs that a baby is naturally exposed to. As Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told us: "If you compare [vaccines] with the enormous bombardment that a little infant gets from the moment they're born … it's like a drop in the bucket."
  • A similar point -- the absence in the film of doctors who were vaccine skeptics -- was raised in a widely circulated critique from Dr. Jay Gordon, who asked why his interview wasn't part of the program. Here is producer Jon Palfreman's response:
    FRONTLINE went to considerable lengths to include a wide range of viewpoints, even in the face of very strong scientific evidence against the hypothesized autism link to MMR and thimerosal. Despite the consistent negative epidemiology and the definitive verdict of the federal vaccine court we included views from people who wanted more and different studies.
    When making long-form documentaries, it often happens that some of the many interviews conducted for the film don't make it into the broadcast. Dr. Gordon was one of these, as were several people who are pro-vaccines and back the CDC's schedule.
    The companion FRONTLINE website contains full interviews with different stakeholders, including Dr. Sears. The website also hosts a robust public conversation where a full range of viewpoints are being aired and engaged.
  • Some viewers wrote with questions about the Danish studies featured in the film. As producer Jon Palfreman explains:
    We selected the two Danish studies (cohort studies) that are widely regarded as the best studies methodologically (published in NEJM, November 7, 2002 and JAMA, October 1, 2003). We interviewed Anders Hviid because he was an author on both of these studies and the lead author in one of them. These are not to be confused with another study, co-authored by Poul Thorsen, that used a weaker methodology (a so-called ecological study) "Thimerosal and the Occurrence of Autism: Negative Ecological Evidence From Danish Population-Based Data" (published in PEDIATRICS Vol. 112 No. 3 September 2003).
  • In response to some viewers' questions about whether Anders Hviid works for a vaccine manufacturer, producer Jon Palfreman writes:
    Anders Hviid is senior scientist at the Department of Epidemiological research at Statens Serum Institut (SSI) in Denmark. SSI is not a commercial vaccine manufacturer, but a nonprofit organization run by the Danish Ministry of Interior and Health. Aside from vaccine research, SSI is charged with supplying the vaccines for the Danish Childhood Vaccination Program. Some of these vaccines are bought; some of these vaccines are produced by SSI. SSI is more like CDC than it is like a pharmaceutical company.
  • Some viewers questioned the film's inclusion of Dr. Paul Offit. As we reported, Dr. Offit is the co-developer of the RotaTeq vaccine for rotavirus, and has financially benefited from his invention. A number of viewers cited reports that Offit's vaccine has caused intussusception, or that the vaccine was contaminated by pig and/or primate virus.

    Here is producer Jon Palfreman's response:
    Whereas the first rotavirus vaccine, RotaShield, was suspended for causing cases of intussusception, RotaTeq, which Offit helped develop, is currently licensed by the FDA as safe and effective. The number of reported intussusception cases for this vaccine is less than the CDC's estimated background rate (18-43/100,000 children aged 6-43 weeks). In other words, the FDA is not convinced there is any association between the vaccine and the intussusception.
    In March, federal authorities temporarily suspended Rotarix made by GlaxoSmithKline and approved by the FDA in 2008 due to concerns of contamination with material from a pig virus. This is a different vaccine from RotaTeq, the vaccine Paul Offit helped develop.
    Update: On May 6, the FDA announced that it has also found fragments of pig virus in the RotaTeq vaccine. The FDA says there's no evidence of a health or safety risk; a previously scheduled advisory meeting will be held on Fri. May 7.
  • Some viewers objected to FRONTLINE identifying Jenny McCarthy as "former Playboy Playmate." We did so because we came to the conclusion that her fame largely followed her selection as Playboy Playmate of the Year 1994, so this seemed the clearest way to establish the source of her celebrity, which she has been using to raise awareness for her cause. We would note that, after making a minor study of the question, we found that NPR, The New York Times, ABC News and other major news outlets also reference McCarthy's Playmate status in recent pieces about her role in the vaccine debate.
  • After broadcast, we were contacted on behalf of Jennifer Margulis about how her views on vaccines and the CDC schedule were misrepresented. Subsequently, FRONTLINE clarified the program narration to indicate that she has vaccinated her children against some diseases (yellow fever, tetanus, polio and meningitis), but has not vaccinated her children according to the CDC's full list of recommended vaccines or the CDC's recommended schedule. See Jennifer Margulis' letter to the producers as well as an article she wrote for Mothering magazine for more on her views regarding the vaccine debate.


posted april 27, 2010; updated may 6

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