In August last year, I compiled an A-Z list of anti-vaxxers who had died of COVID-19. This wasn’t intended to mock them or to celebrate their deaths. My purpose was simply to pull together some of the many stories circulating on the internet to serve as a cautionary message to the ‘vaccine hesitant.’ People die when they are fooled by con-artists peddling false information.
Since then, of course, there have been many more preventable deaths. Data from the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (November 2021) shows that unvaccinated people are 16 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated.
Yet, the conspiracy theories continue, based on a raft of lies by anti-vaxx groups and organisations which are earning bucketloads of cash from all the ‘clicks’ and merchandise sales generated by their social media posts.
Since I wrote about preventable deaths in August, the focus of anti-vaxxers has shifted from adults to children. Early in the pandemic, it seemed that children were less susceptible to COVID-19. But with new strains, more children are falling ill, and some are dying.
In New York, this week, hospital admissions for children rose by 66 per cent. Currently, in Australia, children under 12 account for more than a fifth of all COVID-19 cases. As of November 16, 2021, there have been almost 27,000 cases in Australia among children aged zero to nine with about 2.5 per cent of them being hospitalised.
A key reason why children are being hospitalised is that many of them are not vaccinated. To date, 700 children have died in America as a result of COVID-19 – and, despite what you’ll hear from anti-vaxxers, none as a result of vaccination. Even if the death rate for children is low, we don’t yet know what the long-term health consequences might be and whether mild cases may still be associated with long COVID.
As health authorities urge parents to vaccinate their children, Children’s Health Defense (CHD), an anti-vaccination group headed by Robert F Kennedy Jr, is muddying the waters by running a global scare-campaign against vaccinating kids. This is a highly professional outfit. You can’t blame parents for being confused and frightened.
Now that Australian parents are being encourage to have their 5-11 year old children vaccinated, misinformation from Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense group is being distributed through Australian school, sporting and “mummy-blogger” networks. To those unused to sorting out fact from fiction, the CHD’s professional-looking 150-page PDF looks convincing, and terrifying. The document “Are Covid Vaxxes Safe for Children?” uses the same technique as the television commentator, Madison Madison, in the movie, “Don’t Look Up.”
“Just asking questions!” she smiles as she seeds fear, uncertainty and doubt in her viewers.
Just a few minutes’ research showed that the information being peddled by Robert F Kennedy’s CHD is patently false and misleading.
“Why?” I asked myself.
“Why would educated people spread lies designed to discourage parents from a harmless medical intervention that will potentially save their child’s life? They must know they’re telling lies and risking children’s lives. Why would anybody do that?”
A little more research and the “why” soon became clear. The answer was, as always, “money and power.”
Children’s Health Defense don’t just ‘share’ information, they invest heavily in disseminating it. An investigation by international news agency, AP, found that, along with another (subsequently banned) group, Children’s Health Defense purchased more than half the anti-vaccination advertising on Facebook. They are spending money to aggressively circulate disinformation across multiple platforms.
Since 2018, revenue earned by Children’s Health Defense has risen from $1.1 million (US) to $6.8 million. Meanwhile, Robert F Kennedy’s income from the organisation rose from $131,250 to $255,000 ($354,000 Australian).
“Since the pandemic started, Children’s Health Defense has expanded the reach of its newsletter, which uses slanted information, cherry-picked facts and conspiracy theories to spread distrust of the COVID-19 vaccines. The group has also launched an internet TV channel and started a movie studio. CHD has global ambitions.” [my emphasis]
Global ambitions: that means money and power. And if it costs a couple of thousand kid’s lives to achieve that, well, hey, who’s counting?
It’s true that CHD is a not-for-profit organisation. But who knows how the money being made from the very lucrative anti-vaxx industry is being circulated behind the scenes? According to AP, Children’s Health Defense is part of a global anti-vaxx network which is actively marketing health and vaccination disinformation for fun and profit. Like multi-level marketers, there are huge profits to be made in selling DVDs, booklets and other merchandise. Networkers also appear to be sharing income-generating affiliate links.
Professor Dorit Reiss, an expert in vaccine policy calls it a “disinformation industry.” She suggests it works in much the same way as MLM (multi-level marketing) schemes which funnel money from the grassroots to the top of the pyramid. While Children’s Health Defense denies any financial links with “for profit” organisations, AP believes money is being funnelled to the organisation both through “affiliate links” and through substantial “donations” from for-profit entities.
“has helped to spread dangerous misinformation over social media and is complicit in sowing distrust of the science behind vaccines.”
But the 150 page document, now circulating widely in Australia, unleashes a tsunami of false claims making it almost impossible to refute every one.
There’s a debating technique known as the “Gish Gallop“. The strategy is to bombard your opponent with so many factoids that it is simply impossible for them to discount every one within the time allowed. Even if they successfully counter three or four, you are able to respond, “Ah yes! But what about w, x, y and z? You have no answer for those, did you? You ignored those, didn’t you?” This is the same strategy employed by Children’s Health Defense. They make so many blatantly false claims it’s simply impossible to counter every one.
Even my quick fact-check into some of the claims made by Kennedy’s CHD showed them misrepresenting scientific papers, referring to Vaccination Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) data as if every reported event was definitively linked to vaccination (that’s not how VAERS works – it’s like sending every person accused of a crime to jail without a trial!), and quoting from pre-print articles which have not yet been peer-reviewed.
Any university undergraduate who used the research methods employed by Children’s Health Defense would consistently fail their assignments; they ignore the most basic guidelines of academic research.
One of the strategies that Children’s Health Defense uses to claim legitimacy for its arguments is the Great Barrington declaration – an open letter which declares that healthy children should not be vaccinated for COVID-19. Sponsored by a libertarian think-tank, The Great Barrington declaration is, reportedly, signed by 15,000 physicians and medical scientists around the world.
The premise of this declaration has been debunked, but it gets worse. When Sky News investigated the signatories, they found among the 15,000 so called medical experts’ names:
Dr. I.P. Freely
Dr. Person Fakename
Dr. Johnny Bananas
Dr. Harold Shipman
As it turns out, you didn’t have to be a physician or a medical scientist to sign the document. It was made available to anyone to sign – and nobody verified the claims of anyone who added the moniker “Dr” or “Professor” to their name.
In addition, Sky found the ‘experts’ included:
“… 100 therapists, including massage therapists, hypnotherapists, psychotherapists and one Mongolian Khöömii Singer who describes himself as a ‘therapeutic sound practitioner.'”
Parents are under a great deal of pressure right now, and it’s not surprising they want to make the right decision for their children. It’s a crushing responsibility. We can’t expect every parent to know how to critically analyse academic texts. If information looks professional, cites what seems to be information from experts, and there’s a famous name appended to the organization disseminating it, you can’t blame parents from believing it – or at least being alarmed into a degree of vaccine hesitancy.
There is money to be made from posts that go viral on the internet, and posts that scare the bejeezus out of people are those most likely to go viral. Children’s Health Defense is not looking out for your kids, they’re almost certainly part of a multi-level marketing network which trades in disinformation. They know they’re lying. They know they’re putting children’s lives in jeopardy. But they know that playing on parents’ fears is a sure-fire way to rake in the cash. It’s a clever con and you shouldn’t bet your child’s life on them being right.
Credible resources for parents:
Australian Government Advisory on COVID-19 Vaccines for Children Aged 5-11
ATAGI, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, believes the benefits of vaccination, including both direct and indirect benefits to the child, close contact and community warrant a recommendation for vaccination in this age group. Unvaccinated children will remain at greater risk of adverse outcomes related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) recommend the vaccine for children aged 5-11.
Dr James Best, Chair of RACGP (Royal Australian College of General Practitioners) Specific Interests Child and Young Person’s Health, welcomed the approval of the vaccine for younger children, saying it is a ‘fantastic opportunity’ to protect them:
“It’s great that ATAGI feel that they have the evidence to go this step. Even though the rate of complications is lower the lower you go in age, it still happens. And we also have the other factor of PIMS-TS [as a side-effect of COVID-19] coming into the equation, as well as indirect effects like loss of school time and lack of socialisation, as well as secondary infection to household carriers who may be at higher risk, like the elderly. So there’s quite a few different factors coming into play.”
The Australian Medical Association has welcomed the TGA’s green light for the vaccine for children aged 5-11 years old. AMA Vice-President Chris May said vaccinating children would prevent outbreaks in schools – especially as the Omicron variant takes hold.
“We want to be able to keep kids going to school, stopping outbreaks occurring in schools and preventing infection going back home to families, so it’s a good time to vaccinate during the school holidays protecting kids before they return to school.”
The US medical regulator, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), says the benefits of the Pfizer vaccine “clearly outweigh” the risks of contracting COVID-19 for children aged five to 11.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5 and older. Members of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices voted 14-0 to open up Pfizer vaccines to an estimated 28 million children in the USA.
The prestigious Johns Hopkins Medicine in the US also encouraged all families to have eligible children vaccinated.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the vaccine for all eligible children.
Tina Ardon, a family medicine physician from the prestigious Mayo Clinic, says it is safe to vaccinate children 5-11 for COVID-19. “The COVID-19 vaccine is extremely safe for our children. We have a number of studies that represent that we’ve had a number of children who have already received the vaccines, and we have been able to monitor those children closely. And we feel very confident this is a safe and effective vaccine,” says Dr. Ardon.
Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the Chief Medical Advisor to the President of the United States, says:
“If you have a child 5 to 11, please get that child vaccinated to prevent them from getting anything that even resembles a serious illness.”
In the USA, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) says:
“Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent COVID-19 infection. ACIP recommends the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for children aged 5–11 years for the prevention of COVID-19.”