by Ashley Shelby
In an opinion published in The Bridge’s March 5 edition, anti-vaccine activist and homeopath Charlotte Gilruth makes false and defamatory accusations about the parent-led vaccine organization Voices for Vaccines, for which I volunteer as co-director. The other director, Karen Ernst, is a military wife and mother of three. Neither she nor I are, as Gilruth claims, a “CDC veteran.” Further, we are not an “off-shoot of a task force funded by Merck and Novartis and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.” We rely exclusively, and entirely, on member donations.
We are administratively housed at the Task Force for Global Health, but Gilruth seems to misunderstand that concept. It means that we are currently so small in size administratively that we require an “administrative home” in order to operate. The Task Force for Global Health provides us a mailing address to receive donations from our members that are earmarked for Voices for Vaccines. We do not receive money from the Task Force for Global Health or any pharmaceutical company. In fact, we have to pay the Task Force for Global Health for its administrative services. Both Karen and I live in the Twin Cities, not Georgia, where the Task Force is based. This is because we have no relationship with them beyond one that is administrative in nature.
But this is almost beside the point. Gilruth’s argument, while wildly inaccurate, is not unfamiliar to us. At first, Karen and I were bemused and then bewildered that two midwestern moms would be accused of being “pharma shills” or “in the pocket of Big Pharma.” Then we learned we weren’t the only parents being targeted in this manner. It seemed any time a mother or father would speak out on social media about his or her decision to vaccinate their children, they would find themselves the target of similar attacks — something that became so predictable that we came to call the “pharma shill gambit.”
Apparently there are people out there, Gilruth included, who seriously believe that pharmaceutical companies are not only employing tens of thousands of people to pose as parents on Facebook, Twitter, and blog posts, but have also apparently bought the silence of pediatricians, public health officials and other medical providers. Gilruth seems to believe in a vast worldwide conspiracy of silence regarding the safety of vaccines, that all of us — doctors, scientists, public health employees, even parents like Karen and me — know that vaccines are “harmful” but have decided to say otherwise because somehow we can make a buck by doing so. As a former journalist, I find it incredible that this alleged conspiracy — which would have to be the largest and longest-lived in human history — has gone undiscovered by enterprising investigative journalists for decades.
It may help Gilruth sleep at night to believe that the 90 percent of parents who vaccinate their children are all being manipulated by “fake grassroots (‘astroturf’) groups created and funded by the vaccine industry,” as she writes. That every parent who speaks out in favor of vaccines is being bought. And in some ways, I hope she and her anti-vaccine brethren continue with this approach, because to the truly vaccine-hesitant parent (yes, I was once one myself) this kind of twisted logic and fantasy-making is not only unconvincing, it’s downright suspicious in its outrageousness. To all but the most conspiracy-minded, the baseless accusations wear thin, especially when anti-vaccine mouthpieces like Gilruth are, in their desperation, resorting to ad hominem attacks based on lies, such as the ones she perpetuates in her frantic op-ed mentioning Voices for Vaccines.
Not only does Voices for Vaccines “purport to be a parent-driven group,” we are one. Just ask any of our members. I imagine they might laugh if they knew that Gilruth and her ilk accuse them of being “pharma shills” as they struggle to find a sitter or try to get the brakes on their car fixed before their next mortgage payment is due. Or, like me, as they type out responses to attacks like this on their beat-up laptop on their beat-up couch after putting their kids to bed. We may not have the deep pockets of Joseph Mercola, Jenny McCarthy, Generation Rescue, Vermont Coalition for Vaccine Choice, and other organizations promoting anti-vaccine misinformation, but we’re on the right side of history and science. And we tell the truth.
The author is co-director of Voices for Vaccines, www.voicesforvaccines.org, and founder and editor of Moms Who Vax www.momswhovax.blogspot.com.