Paul Offit MD – debunking the anti-vaccine tropes and myths

I have long considered Paul Offit MD as one of heroes and leaders of the public discussion of how vaccines save lives, and how they have made the lives of the world’s children healthier and better. Dr. Offit, together with Edward Jenner (the father of immunology), Jonas Salk (discoverer of the polio vaccine), and Maurice Hillman (inventor of the MMR vaccine against measles, mumps and rubella), should have statues place outside of every pediatric hospital in the country for the number of lives that they have saved.

Unfortunately, since Dr. Offit is considered one of the “leaders” of the pro-vaccine majority, his name has been demonized by the anti-vaccine cult. These people use the Big Lie, a Nazi propaganda technique where a known falsehood is repeatedly stated, then treated as if it is self-evidently true in hopes of swaying the course of an argument in a direction that takes the big lie for granted rather than critically questioning it or ignoring it.

The vaccine deniers constantly repeat untruths about Dr. Offit so that those lies eventually evolve into apparent truths, at least for those who hold onto their pseudoscientific anti-vaccine beliefs.

The problem is, of course, that if you’re a new parent who is confused by what vaccines may or may not do, you’d assume you could not accept anything that Dr. Offit says because of those Big Lies, and many of the ridiculous tropes and memes of the vaccine denialists. And this is sad.

Let’s counter the Big Lie with the Big Facts.

Who is Dr. Paul Offit MD?

Dr. Offit’s biography is simply one of a person who is passionate about helping children. His first book, Breaking the Antibiotic Habit: A Parent’s Guide to Coughs, Colds, Ear Infections, and Sore Throats, was one of the first popular books that asked parents to start reducing the use of antibiotics, because they may have long-term consequences for the children.

Obviously, the Big Pharma, in the form of the antibiotic manufacturers, probably wasn’t too happy with him because he was right about the overuse of antibiotics. And probably cost Big Pharma a substantial amount of sales and profits.

But most of Dr. Offit’s career has been in studying and supporting vaccines as the best method to prevent deadly diseases. Here are just a selection of what he’s done:

That is an impressive resume. It is also frustrating that individuals with little or no biomedical background can spend 10 minutes on google searches and proclaim themselves smarter than Dr. Offit. I actually have a strong biomedical background (and 25 years of experience), yet I’m an amateur compared to him.

Big Lies about Dr. Paul Offit

A while ago, I ran across Left Brain Right Brain’s blogpost, Your Baby’s Best Shot: Why Vaccines Are Safe and Save Lives,  which was quick review of the book I mentioned above by Hagood and Herlihy with a forward by Dr. Offit himself. The blog post really was nothing much more than the blurb about the book, a quickie article to update their readers about something new and interesting regarding vaccines. However, the blog post’s comments section was filled with some of those Big Lies about Dr. Offit:

We should just point out that he was reprimanded by Congress for voting on vaccine policies for which he had financial conflicts.

According to Liz Ditz, no he wasn’t. He was “harassed” (my words, not Ms. Ditz’s) by a vaccine denialist member of Congress, Representative Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, who has since left Congress. According to the report from Congress, which was a critique on the CDC’s policies and its enforcement of those policies, mentioned that Paul Offit abstained from a critical vote on rotavirus vaccine.

Despite this Big Lie, Dr. Offit was never reprimanded (an official action of a legislative body) by Congress or anyone else. Maybe a right wing congressman with an agenda got a little mad at Dr. Offit, but that is not a “reprimand” by Congress.

Although the Congressional report was awfully wordy, it seemed like Dr. Offit was, in fact, being praised for his decision. Dr. Offit, because he was the inventor of the vaccine which saves hundreds of thousands of lives, decided to recuse himself from the vote on the vaccine, which was the ethical, moral, and right thing to do. No one reprimanded him.

Next on the list of Big Lies in that same comment section:

Also, his chair at the Children’s Hospital is paid for by Merck, which by any definition represents a continuing conflict of interest.

Yes, Dr. Offit is the Maurice R. Hilleman (the same Maurice Hilleman who invented the MMR vaccine) Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. Yes, Merck gave an endowment for the Maurice R. Hilleman chair, but it was mostly set up by Hilleman himself prior to his death.

Merck does not have special rights to come to his office and demand that he do anything, just because they endowed the chair. Merck and the University of Pennsylvania make the funding public so there’s no back-channel payments that influence the conversation about vaccines.

And Merck, like all pharmaceutical companies, has a charitable foundation that gives boatloads of money to many worthy causes. Diabetes. AIDS/HIV. Asthma. This money funds research, not “controlled” by the company. The same foundation gave the “no-strings-attached” funding for the new Vaccinology chair.

Moreover, and I’ve never understood this, why do the vaccine deniers (actually all science deniers) think that people are so easily bought and sold? Maybe the antivaccinationist’s moral codes are abject failures in human society (of course, they don’t want to save children, so I might actually be onto something) so their morals are easily purchased. Then, those same individuals project their lack of ethics onto others. However, I can only speculate. I am not a psychiatrist nor do I play one on the internet.

Understandably, the Pharma Shill Gambit is getting awfully tiresome to people like me who value logic and evidence. The gambit is an ad hominem personal attack barely worthy of consideration and response.

Without any evidence whatsoever, pseudoscience pushing anti-vaccine activists keep using these ad hominem arguments that somehow the pharmaceutical industry is filled with evil people. I demand that anyone making these personal attacks should provide evidence of that, because almost everyone in the industry, including researchers, executives, and engineers, are devoted to doing everything they can to help humanity.

One of my “virtual” friends, whom I met while helping her refute some ignorant comments about Social Security disability and autism a few years ago, is Liz Ditz, a tireless supporter of vaccines, autism , and children’s health. Ms. Ditz penned “Meryl Dorey: Seven Assertions. One is Factual. Six Are False,” where she takes Ms. Dorey (one of the most vile anti-vaccine cult members) to task about her lies about Dr. Offit:

  1. Paul Offit Works in Pennsylvania — TRUE!
  2. Paul Offit sat on the FDA Committee--FALSE!
  3. That Approved His Rotavirus Vaccine — FALSE!
  4. Paul Offit Continues to Derive Revenue from RotaTek patent — FALSE!
  5. Paul Offit “Has Set Himself Up” As An Expert on Vaccines — FALSE!
  6. Paul Offit “Opposes All Vaccine Exemptions” — FALSE!
  7. Paul Offit Published A Study Proving the “100,000 Vaccines at Once” Safety Claim–FALSE! (This particular zombie antivaccination meme has arisen frequently from the obnoxious and unethical Australian anti-vaccine Meryl Dorey)

There’s more out there, but we’ve hit the top  7 list.

10,000 vaccines

One of the more sustained zombie tropes of the anti-vaccine world is to threaten Paul Offit with 10,000 vaccines. This is based on a claim that Offit has made that the infant’s immune system is so robust and powerful, it can tolerate 10,000 vaccines.

It doesn’t mean a literal injection of 10,000 vaccine doses. That’s over 10 liters of fluid injected, which would kill even a large adult with fluid overload. And it would necessitate 10,000 separate injections which would be difficult, again, even on a large adult. This is how the anti-science “thinker” works – not understanding what he actually meant.

If the anti-vaxxers would take the time to actually read scientific literature, Dr. Offit explains why multiple vaccines are not a danger to children. He did not claim that 10,000 actual vaccines be injected into any child. He’s a well educated, well trained expert on children’s immune system, and his comment was about the immune system not about actual injections.

The child’s immune system is assaulted by millions of antigens every day. If it were weak and pathetic, as preferred by the anti-vaccine world, sure, 10,000 vaccines would be terrible. But the child’s immune system is quite strong.

Summary, the TL;DR version

I still cannot understand why people with no education in the fields of vaccines, immunology, epidemiology, physiology, public health, medicine and/or pediatrics think that they know more than an expert, like Paul Offit MD. That MD of his comes from not a couple of hours of Googling about vaccines and pediatric infectious diseases. It comes from 8 years in college and medical school, the same amount in residency and advanced training. It results from years of research and standing up to scientific criticism.

Is it because the anti-vaccination cult feels empowered by lying or misinformed websites? Is it because they think that they know more than a highly educated and trained physician?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book, Outliers: The Story of Success, wrote about the “10,000-Hour Rule”, claiming that the key to achieving world class expertise in any skill, is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing the correct way, for a total of around 10,000 hours. If you’re cruising the internet trying to learn about vaccines for a couple of hours every day, you’d need 5,000 days, around 15 years, to get close. And I would bet if you actually did that, you would educate yourself to the point that you would know the Big Lies about Dr. Offit and about vaccines, and would be a solid vaccine supporter.

Vaccine deniers think they can throw around words like “immune system”, or “mercury poisoning”, or “autism can be ‘cured'” really have no clue about science. The immune system takes years to understand. It is a complex system of immunoglobulins, cells, proteins, and organs (and I’m probably missing something) that has a nearly infinite number of permutations. Researchers spend years to just understand one tiny portion of the immune system. How can someone do that with a college degree in art, reading Google hits for a few hours believe they can be experts at the level of Dr. Offit? They can’t.

So enough with the lies about Dr. Paul Offit. If you have some legitimate evidence that Dr. Offit is wrong about any aspect of vaccines, and by evidence I mean published, peer-reviewed articles, then bring it. I’d love to read it.

Dr. Offit is right about one thing – vaccines save lives.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2012. It has been revised and updated to include more comprehensive information, to improve readability and to add current research. Also broken links were fixed.


The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!