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University of Pennsylvania's Paul Offit Addresses Association of Health Care Journalists

Hoag Levins
Photo: Hoag Levins
Paul Offit, MD, Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and a Professor of both Vaccinology and Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, pulled no punches in his speech before the Association of Health Care Journalists' annual conference in Denver.
In a presentation as strident in some places as it was humorous in others, University of Pennsylvania professor and national vaccine expert Paul Offit chastised a national health care journalists' group for the news industry's "false balance" in reporting on vaccine controversies.

Addressing a ballroom luncheon of nearly 700 reporters and editors at the annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) in Denver, Offit pointed to coverage of the recent outbreak of a potentially deadly meningitis strain at Princeton and the University of California, Santa Barbara as an example.

Emergency use
In November of last year, after six Princeton University students were hospitalized for serogroup B meningitis infections -- for which the U.S. had no vaccine -- the federal government approved the emergency use of a foreign vaccine that was neither licensed nor submitted for licensure in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control explained the Novartis-produced vaccine, which had been approved for use by the FDA-like agencies of Europe, Australia and Canada, was considered safe for use in the U.S.

But the issue became an instant controversy typified by an NBC news program entitled "Students as Guinea Pigs" that
Hoag Levins
Photo: Mel Evans, AP
In early December, Princeton began innoculating 6,000 students with a Novartis serogroup B meningitis vaccine that was not licensed or even submitted for licensure in the U.S.
6both included and infuriated Offit, a world-renowned vaccine scientist. In the show, Philadelphia TV reporter Renee Chenault paired Offit's comments with those of anti-vaccine lobbyist Sherri Tenpenny, author of the book "Saying No to Vaccines." She told the TV audience that "there have been no long term studies" of the vaccine and that Princeton students and their parents should be wary of it.

'False balance'
"What bothers us as scientists," Offit told the gathering of health care journalists from mainstream print, broadcast and internet media outlets, "is that you told 'two sides' of this story when, frankly, only one side is supported by the science." He characterized this habit of journalists as "false balance."

"I think Renee Chenault thought 'I'm going to give people 'both' sides of the story -- the side where you should be cautious about this vaccine and the side where you should get the vaccine'," Offit said. "I think she thought she was informing the public by saying 'it hasn't been tested,' but that was bad information that could cause people to make a bad decision. I don't see that as informing the public. I see it as misinforming the public."

'A frank discussion'
Offit, who is Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and a Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, said he called the NBC show's producer to have "a frank discussion about what 'balance' means and how there aren't always two sides to the story."

"I said 'call up Dr. Tenpenny and ask her to name one of the four components in the vaccine. For every one she names, I'll give a hundred dollars to your favorite charity. And if she names all four, I'll give a thousand dollars to your charity. The only thing I want out of this is that if she names none of them, that you at NBC realize that the person you had on as an 'expert' and who scared people about this vaccine knows nothing about this vaccine."

Offit criticized the audience for their industry's "love of controversy" and said "the media can be enormously frustrating to people like me."

Heart-wrenching anecdote
Using one of the most effective tactics of the anti-vaccine lobby -- the heart-wrenching anecdote -- Offit went on to describe an unvaccinated 13-month-old recently brought into his hospital with bacterial meningitis and streptococcus pneumonia. He said her parents had earlier chosen not to have the child vaccinated and now she was brain dead and on a ventilator.

"She will be in a vegetative state for probably five to seven years before she dies from likely an infection and all of this was preventable," said Offit. "So why do parents make that choice? Because they have these unrealistic fears about vaccines and there are members of your (journalism) profession that continue to stoke that fear."

"This (NBC show) is an example of that; of scaring people unnecessarily about a vaccine. It does harm. When you work in a hospital and you watch people die of these things, you just get passionate and angry about it."

Rising numbers of outbreaks
Mellowing toward the end of his talk, Offit noted that he believed that responsible media outlets are taking a more serious approach to vaccine stories, largely because of the rising numbers of pertussis, measles, mumps and bacterial meningitis outbreaks across the country.

In the question and answer session, a TV reporter told Offit that journalists in today's understaffed, underfunded newsrooms are given little time to research the background of 'experts' and often get whoever they can get on short notice. "What is your advice for the best way for journalists working on these very short timeframes to get a sense of whether an issue is a legitimate controversy or not?" Offit was asked.

"Don't do the story," Offit said. "If you're not going to spend the time to really look at this and know what the data does and does not support, that's a lazy way to do a story."

"But we report to an assigning editor and don't have the power to not do the story," the reporter told Offit.

"If that's the way it's going to be done, it's likely to be done badly by the journalist and unfairly for the reader or listener or viewer," Offit said. "It's very easy to scare people and it's really hard to unscare them."

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Hoag Levins is a journalist and managing editor of digital publications at the University of Pennsylvania's Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics (LDI).

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