Facebook ‘Fact Checker’ Misinforms on Vaccines

Written by Jeremy R. Hammond

Facebook Won't Show Content Containing Vaccine Misinformation

Facebook has unveiled a new “Fact-Checker” feature­ that’s now being used to supposedly combat misinformation about vaccines, but which is actually being used to propagandize. A “Fact-Checker” showing up on a popular video by Del Bigtree, host of the show The HighWire, claims that the video is presenting false information.

However, Facebook itself in this case is guilty of misinforming its users about vaccine safety.

Those in the mainstream discourse calling for efforts to combat misinformation about vaccines actually have no problem at all with misinformation. Transparently, what they instead have a problem with is any information that might lead parents to conclude that strictly complying with the routine childhood vaccine schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) might not be in the best interests of their child.

They have no problem with lies about vaccine safety and effectiveness as long as it’s intended to persuade parents to vaccinate their children.

This is evident in the case of the aforementioned Facebook “Fact-Checker”. In theHighWire video, published on May 4, 2017, Bigtree states that ingredients used in vaccines include aluminum and mercury, which are both known neurotoxins, and that vaccines can cause encephalopathy, which is a term encompassing any type of brain damage, disorder, or disease. This includes encephalitis, which refers to inflammation of the brain. On the screen, he shows the product package insert for Merck’s measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, which lists encephalitis and encephalopathy among the possible adverse consequences of getting an MMR shot.

Facebook’s “Fact-Checker” that now appears with the video states that this is “False”, adding that “Current data shows that vaccines are safe and do not cause toxicity or encephalopathy”. This links to an article on the website of the organization Health Feedback titled “Contrary to popular video claim, vaccine ingredients are safe, not linked to encephalopathy”.

Facebook fact-checker on vaccines

A screenshot of Facebook’s “Fact-Checker” on a HighWire video

The Health Feedback article presents a fabricated quote, attributing to Bigtree the words “Toxic vaccine ingredients in the MMR vaccine cause encephalopathy”. While Bigtree does suggest this, those words do not appear in the video and so should be presented as a paraphrase, not as a direct quote. The whole context of Bigtree’s video is omitted, which is that it was a response to a video by Bill Nye (“The Science Guy”) in which Nye misleadingly implies that the viral or bacterial antigens are the only components of vaccines. Bigtree was educating his viewers that, to the contrary, vaccines also contain numerous other ingredients, including, depending on the vaccine, known neurotoxins aluminum and mercury.

Neither Facebook nor Health Feedback express any objection to Bill Nye misleading his viewers into the false belief that vaccines contain a viral or bacterial antigen component and nothing else.

Continuing in his video, Bigtree asks what happens if you inject aluminum into a baby. “Has there ever been a safety test on it?” he rhetorically inquires, then answers the question: “Never.”

He points out that mercury is the most toxic non-radioactive substance known to man and is included in flu shots being given to pregnant women. (Multi-dose vials of inactivated influenza vaccines contain the mercury-based preservative thimerosal.) Other ingredients Bigtree claims are in vaccines are formaldehyde and anti-freeze (propylene-glycol). Then he states that aluminum and mercury from vaccines end up in the brain. After rhetorically asking what happens when these neurotoxic substances reach the brain, Bigtree suggests that one consequence can be encephalopathy. It is at this point that he shows encephalopathy listed as a possible adverse event on the MMR vaccine package insert.

Here, Bigtree does mislead his viewers by implying that the MMR vaccine contains either aluminum or mercury, or both. In fact, it contains neither. Moreover, while formaldehyde is used in vaccines, propylene-glycol is not; although another chemical used to make anti-freeze, polyethylene glycol, has been. Had Facebook’s “Fact-Checker” taken an objective approach, they would have pointed out that Bigtree was right to criticize Nye for misleading his viewers, but wrong to suggest that either of these ingredients are in the MMR vaccine and wrong to say that anti-freeze is an ingredient in vaccines. Instead, they hypocritically singled out Bigtree for criticism.

Furthermore, Health Feedback itself hypocritically misinforms its readers, stating falselythat “No scientific evidence supports a causal association between vaccines or its ingredients (thimerosal, aluminum adjuvants, propylene glycol) and encephalopathy.”

“The claim that the MMR vaccine causes encephalopathy”, the Health Feedback article continues, “is based on a misinterpretation of the vaccine package insert information.”

The article acknowledges that multi-dose vials of the flu shot do contain thimerosal, which is about half ethylmercury by weight. But it claims that ethylmercury is “eliminated by the body quickly, unlike methylmercury, meaning that it does not accumulate in the body.”

Likewise, the article acknowledges that vaccines can contain aluminum salts, which are used as an adjuvant, meaning a substance included in a vaccine to elicit a stronger immune response. But, the article adds, “the levels in vaccines are low and safe”.

Also acknowledged is the fact that encephalopathy appears on the MMR package insert under the heading “Adverse Reactions”. The article argues, however, that the insert explicitly lists these “without regard to causality”, and that it is “therefore erroneous to assert a causal relationship between vaccines and encephalopathy on the basis of the package insert information.”

Health Feedback further argues: “The claim that vaccine safety is completely unknown is false. The Institute of Medicine—part of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine—reviewed childhood immunization schedules and found them to be safe.”

The truth is, however, that on every single one of these points, it is Facebook and its “Fact-Checker” partner who are misinforming the public.

Aluminum Is Neurotoxic and Does Accumulate in the Brain

Just as Del Bigtree stated, there has never been a study of the effects of injecting aluminum into human babies. The counterclaim that this has been studied is a flat-out lie. The study that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the CDC chiefly rely on to support their claim that the aluminum in vaccines is safe, by Robert Mitkus et al., relied on a “minimal risk level” for humans based on a single study in rodents.

While the government claims that this study shows that it’s safe to inject aluminum into infants in the doses contained in vaccines, it actually doesn’t. For one, a study in rodents can’t logically be used to make conclusive judgments about the safety of this practice in humans.

Moreover, the study relied on a “minimal risk level” that other rodent studies had shown to be more than seven times higher than quantities of aluminum that had been observed to cause adverse effects.

Furthermore, the aluminum was administered to the rodents in the Mitkus et al. study by ingestion, not injection, and the FDA knows perfectly well that this is scientifically invalid because, whereas no more than about 1 percent of ingested aluminum is absorbed into the body, injecting it bypasses the body’s innate immune system—of which the protective gut lining is a part—and deposits the aluminum directly into the tissue.

Mitkus, et al, also only considered the amount of aluminum that wound up in the blood, totally ignoring the amount of aluminum remaining elsewhere in the body. They did so even while acknowledging that aluminum particles from vaccinations are taken up by immune cells known as macrophages, which can transport the aluminum elsewhere; that “aluminum accumulates in the brain”; and that “only a fraction” of aluminum injected into the body from vaccines is absorbed into the blood within 28 days of vaccination.

So the truth is just as Del Bigtree stated: we really have no idea what the effects are of injecting aluminum into human babies and what the long-term adverse consequences of this practice might be because there’s never been a study properly designed to answer that question. The FDA allows vaccine manufacturers to include aluminum in vaccines even though there has never been a randomized, placebo-controlled study in humans to determine the safety of injecting aluminum adjuvants into infants.

Ethylmercury, Too, Is Neurotoxic and Accumulates in the Brain

Similarly, the claim propagated by Facebook and Health Feedback that ethylmercury, unlike methylmercury, doesn’t accumulate in the body is false.

It is true that the CDC itself makes that claim on its website in similar wording as the Health Feedback article. However, to support this claim, the CDC cites a 2004 report by the Institute of Medicine that actually acknowledged the fact that no randomized placebo-controlled trials had ever been done to determine the safety of injecting ethylmercury into infants (or pregnant women); all the studies the CDC was relying upon to support its claim that this practice was safe were retrospective observational studies suffering from methodological limitations that prevented scientists from being able to draw conclusive judgments.

Furthermore, the IOM report explicitly acknowledged that thimerosal is a “known neurotoxin”; that some of the mercury from thimerosal exposure “accumulates in the brain”; and that “heavy metals, including thimerosal, can injure the nervous system.”

The FDA’s own scientists have also acknowledged in the peer-reviewed medical literature that “similar toxicological profiles between ethylmercury and methylmercury suggest that neurotoxicity may also occur at low doses of thimerosal”. Furthermore, “no controlled studies have been conducted to examine low-dose thimerosal toxicity in humans”.

Another study the CDC relies upon to support its claim about ethylmercury’s safety has been described by FDA researchers as “the most relevant study on which to base a comparative assessment of infant mercury exposure or risk from thimerosal [ethylmercury] relative to MeHg [methylmercury].”

But this study, too, does not actually support the CDC’s claim. The study, by Thomas M. Burbacher et al. and published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2005, in fact contradicts the CDC’s claim, having shown that, while more readily eliminated from the blood than methylmercury, ethylmercury is more persistent in the brain, where it accumulates.

The study observed that once in the brain, ethylmercury breaks down into inorganic mercury (meaning that the mercury molecules are no longer attached to carbon molecules), that inorganic mercury in the brain has been associated with brain inflammation, and that brain inflammation has been demonstrated in the brains of autistic patients.

Far from concluding that it is safe to inject ethylmercury into infants and pregnant women, the study actually expressed concern that scientists have “limited knowledge of the toxicokinetics and developmental neurotoxicity of thimerosal” and emphasized that studies to determine this were “urgently needed” to be able to draw any meaningful conclusions about “the potential developmental effects of immunization with thimerosal-containing vaccines in newborns and infants.”

In other words, the CDC’s own source contradicts the CDC’s claim and supports what Del Bigtree says in his video, which is that there has never been a safety study designed to determine the effects of injecting this substance into human babies.

In sum, the assertion propagated by Facebook and Health Feedback that aluminum and mercury in vaccines are “safe” substances that are readily eliminated from and don’t accumulate in the body is false. On the contrary, it is completely uncontroversial in the scientific literature that both of these substances are neurotoxic, pass through the placental and blood-brain barriers, and accumulate in the brain and other organs. And it is true that there has never been a safety study to determine the risks of injecting these substances into human subjects at the levels children are exposed to by the CDC’s schedule.

The misinformation propagated by Facebook and its “Fact-Checker” partner to persuade the public that the mercury and aluminum in vaccines are non-toxic doesn’t end there, though. Whereas they claim that the entire CDC childhood vaccine schedule has been studied and found that it is “safe”, the 2013 IOM report they rely upon to support this assertion actually admitted that “existing research has not been designed to test the entire immunization schedule”. Far from affirming that science has proven that it is safe to administer vaccines to children according to the CDC’s schedule, the IOM report acknowledged that “studies designed to examine the long-term effects of the cumulative number of vaccines or other aspects of the immunization schedule have not been conducted.”

So on this count, too, it is Facebook and its partner who are lying to Facebook users.

The MMR Vaccine Can Cause Encephalopathy

Finally, whereas Facebook and Health Feedback claim that there is no scientific evidence to support the conclusion that the MMR vaccine can cause encephalopathy, in fact, that it can is not even controversial. Merck itself acknowledges this as a proven fact.

It is true that just because an adverse event is listed in a vaccine package insert doesn’t necessarily mean that it has been scientifically demonstrated that adverse events reported following the administration of vaccines were caused by the vaccinations. It is true that Merck states explicitly that the adverse events listed on its MMR package insertare listed “without regard to causality”.

Evidently, however, Facebook’s “fact-checkers” couldn’t be bothered to read the whole insert. If they had, they would have noticed that two pages prior, under the heading “Contraindications”, Merck acknowledges that “Measles inclusion body encephalitis (MIBE), pneumonitis and death as a direct consequence of disseminated measles vaccine virus infection have been reported in immunocompromised individuals inadvertently vaccinated with measles-containing vaccine.”

Again, just because an adverse event is reported following vaccination doesn’t mean the vaccine caused it; however, the measles virus itself is a known cause of encephalitis, the MMR is a weakened live virus vaccine, and Merck’s insert cites a 1999 case reportpublished in Clinical Infectious Disease that documented encephalitis in a previously healthy patient that was associated with the vaccine strain of measles, which was found in the deceased patient’s brain. “Unless he was infected with an as-yet-undescribed wild-type genotype A virus,” the study concluded, “the vaccine strain was indeed the causative agent in this case.” They described their case report as “the first to clearly demonstrate that severe neurological disease can be caused by the vaccine strain of measles virus.”

The MMR manufacturer’s own Merck Manual, the self-described “best first place to go for medical information”, states explicitly that “Encephalitis can occur as a secondary immunologic complication of certain viral infections or vaccinations.” (Emphasis added.)

The summary presented on the version of its entry for “Encephalitis” intended for consumers, rather than physicians, likewise acknowledges that “Encephalitis is inflammation of the brain that occurs when a virus directly infects the brain or when a virus, vaccine, or something else triggers inflammation.” (Emphasis added.)

That page goes on to say that encephalitis “can occur” when a “virus or vaccine triggers a reaction that makes the immune system attack brain tissue (an autoimmune reaction).” (Emphasis added.)

The 1999 case report in Clinical Infectious Disease is of course not the only scientific evidence that vaccines can cause encephalopathy. The prior year, a study was published in Pediatrics—the journal of the industry-funded American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)—that reviewed claims submitted to the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) to determine whether there is evidence for a causal relationship between measles vaccination and encephalopathy.

The VICP was established under the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which granted broad legal immunity to manufacturers of vaccines recommended by the CDC for routine use in children. The compensation program is funded by an excise tax on every vaccine dose administered and effectively shifts the financial burden for vaccine injuries away from the pharmaceutical corporations and onto the taxpaying consumers.

As Del Bigtree pointed out in his HighWire video, the VICP has paid out billions of dollars in compensation. To date, the amount that taxpaying consumers have paid in order to fund this compensation is approximately $4.1 billion.

The Pediatrics study found that there was a statistically significant clustering of cases in which onset of neurological signs or symptoms occurred on the eighth or ninth day post-vaccination. The study’s authors concluded that this clustering “suggests that a causal relationship between measles vaccine and encephalopathy may exist as a rare complication of measles immunization.”

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