A few years ago, Paul Offit found himself in a small room with a bob-haired American mother of three who was so mad at him she had tears in her eyes, and she was standing above him, sort of rearing up — this is his recollection — as if she was preparing herself, mentally, physically, to call him something cutting and mean, “like ‘a piece of shit,’” Offit remembers thinking, “or ‘an arrogant jackass.’” That’s what Offit was bracing himself for. An epithet. But this woman didn’t say anything like that. Instead, she said, “You’re an elitist.”
Compared to some of the other names Offit’s been called, “elitist” is a tongue-kiss. But it got under his skin anyway. He still talks about it. He’s still trying to figure it out.
It had begun so calmly. There he was, at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C., doing what he does best, which is talk about vaccines. Offit is the world’s number one vaccine pundit. He writes opinion articles about vaccines. He writes books about vaccines; Offit just published his fifth book, Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. He recently helped convince a famous Hollywood actress, Amanda Peet, to become a spokesperson for vaccines. He even invented a vaccine. If you’re reading this, and you have a baby, and your pediatrician has followed the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended vaccination schedule, Offit’s strain is most likely coursing through your kid’s bloodstream. Offit is basically Mr. Vaccine. Even his day job is vaccine-related; Offit runs the infectious-diseases division at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where he roams the colorful wards and pokes his head into the rooms of three-year-olds laid up with complex staph and strep infections, and engages in gentle patter like, “Trent, we’re just gonna look at you, sweetie, we’re just gonna look,” and prods gently at little Trent’s bandages, hoping to kill whatever bugs have slipped through Trent’s protective vaccine “net.” And Barbara Loe Fisher, the woman who called him an elitist, runs a grassroots organization called the National Vaccine Information Center, whose website features a quote from her decrying the State’s ability to “tag, track down and force citizens against their will to be injected with biologicals of unknown toxicity.”
They’re ideological opposites. Offit thinks vaccines are heroically staving off death and suffering, and Fisher thinks vaccines are causing death and suffering.
So when the conversation that day in D.C. turned to the flu, and the safety and desirability of flu vaccines, especially in light of a potential pandemic of avian flu — broadly, the meeting was about pandemic flu preparation, but this was a smaller “breakout” session — Offit and Loe Fisher were bound to clash. At one point in the session, Offit said that flu kills 35,000 to 40,000 Americans every year, according to the CDC. That’s a lot of people. And since the chance of dying of the flu is far greater than the chance of suffering an extremely rare serious allergic reaction to the vaccine itself, the vaccine is a pretty good bet, and parents everywhere should try to get past their (irrational) fears and let their pediatricians do their jobs and vaccinate their kids.