Is “Dr. Bob” Sears moving away from his profitable anti-vaccine pandering?

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A couple of days ago, the blog “Just the Vax” noticed that the re-design of “Dr. Bob” Sears’s website includes some conspicuous changes: Whereas previously, there had been a prominent “vaccines” category of his online forum, now the entire topic seems to have been swept under the (virtual) rug. (Update: here’s another datapoint that highlights why I’m so gobsmacked by Sears’s apparent shift.)

Even more remarkable than the fact that the topic no longer appears on Sears’s discussion pages is the fact that Sears has actually removed The Vaccine Book, his bestselling compendium of obfuscation and misinformation, from his list of books for sale. In fact, the dedicated website Sears had set up for The Vaccine Book has also vanished into the ether.

This is staggering: For the past five or so years, Sears has packaged himself as a vaccine “expert,” telling parents who were concerned about vaccine safety that they could skip some vaccines, or space others out. Earlier this week, I was looking on his old “vaccine” forum and found a series of messages in which he assured parents that travel to Western Europe posed no threat of measles infections…which directly contradicted the CDC alert to families traveling with young children. (France is in the midst of a several-years long outbreak which has already infected thousands of people in 2011.) The extent to which Sears marketed himself as a vaccine “expert” can be seen on Sears’s page at the Hachette Speakers Bureau, which still has only a single suggested “topic” for Sears’s speeches: “Vaccine myths and questions: what’s true, what’s hype, and what you need to know.”^

I wrote about Sears at some length in The Panic Virus. I think you’ll understand why I find Sears’s apparent decision to stop selling himself as a vaccine expert so astounding after reading the excerpt below:

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Excerpt from Chapter 22, “Medical NIMBYism and Faith-Based Metaphysics,” of The Panic Virus:

An even better known Southern California doctor who, despite having no specific training in immunology or public health, is an outspoken proponent of “working with” vaccine denialists is Bob Sears, who, like [Jay] Gordon, prefers to be called by his first name only. Sears is, along with his father, William “Dr. Bill” Sears of attachment parenting fame, the primary author of the more than two dozen books that comprise the “Sears Parenting Library,” including The Baby Book and The Healthiest Kid on the Block.

“I became passionate about educating parents all over america [sic] when I discovered that there were no good, complete, unbiased sources of information out there for parents to read,” Sears wrote in an email in response to a question about his initial interest in the topic. “Everything was either completely pro vaccine or antivaccine.  I wanted to create something that would give parents both sides of the story.” The result was 2007′s The Vaccine Book: Making the Right Decision For Your Child, which includes an “alternative” vaccination schedule that’s based on Sears’s personal experiences as a pediatrician. (Sears’s most recent best seller about a topic in which he does not have specialized training is 2010′s The Autism Book: What Every Parent Should Know About Early Detection, Treatment, Recovery, and Prevention.) …

Sears’s questionable assertions are by no means limited to his recommended schedule: The Vaccine Book includes sections titled “Vaccine-Preventable Diseases Are Not That Bad,” and “Natural Infection is Better Than Vaccination.” The book’s most startling passage, however, is included under the heading “Hid[ing] In The Herd”: “When dealing with anxious parents,” he writes, “I warn them not to share their fears with their neighbors, because if too many people avoid the MMR, we’ll likely see the diseases increase significantly.” …

The realities [of the deaths and hospitalizations of vaccine-preventable diseases like Hib, measles, and pertussis] are obviously hard to square with Bob Sears’s downplaying of the dangers of vaccine-preventable diseases—but Sears didn’t need to look to Minnesota for proof that those diseases actually can be “that bad.” [In 2008], a seven-year-old boy who was later revealed to be one of Sears’s patients returned from a family vacation in Switzerland with the measles. While the boy’s parents had made a choice not to vaccinate their child—as his mother explained in a Time magazine article, “We analyze the diseases and we analyze the risk of disease, and that’s how my husband and I make our decision about what vaccines to give our children”—many of the people who paid the price for that decision had less say in the matter. Within days, the measles virus had spread to a swim school, a pediatrician’s office, a Whole Foods, a Trader Joe’s market, and a charter school; an entire plane of passengers headed to Honolulu was quarantined at a military base; and a ten-month child was hospitalized and required around-the-clock care for a full month. (According to Gordon, the hospitalization was an overly dramatic reaction: “My guess is that if this had happened in the 1960s, no one would have been hospitalized.  They would have said, ‘Oh well, an…outbreak of measles.’”) An additional forty-eight children who were too young to be vaccinated had to be quarantined, at an average cost of $775 per family. In total, the outbreak cost public health agencies almost $200,000 to contain.

Eighteen months after one of his patients had caused the largest number of measles cases in California since 1991, when an outbreak resulted in a total of fifty-one deaths, I wrote to the “media inquiries” email address listed on Sears’s website requesting “a time to speak with Dr. Sears for a book I’m working on for Simon & Schuster about vaccines.”⁠ A week later, I received a response with details about advertising on Sears’s website, which, in addition to an online store selling the Sears Family Essentials line of “healthy snacks and supplements,” features endorsements of products ranging from Vital Choice Wild Seafood (“My favorite salmon!”) to Meyenberg Goat Milk Products. The email read:

I’d like to put together a nice press kit for you. … We’d of course like to book as many [page view] impressions as you are willing to give us on a monthly basis, I believe you mentioned 8,000, would 10,000 be out of the question?  We generally charge $15 cpm [cost per million page views] because of our specifically targeted audience, thevaccinebook.com is that in the price range you were expecting Please respond with any general ideas/questions. …

Also, what sort of tracking will be used and how would be bill according to tracking?

Thank you for your understanding and we look forward to the possibility of working with you.

Sears’s willingness to work with advertisers and self-indulgent parents alike has proven to be very profitable. (The Vaccine Book has already sold more than 100,000 copies.) It’s also directly contributed to the rising number of affluent enclaves in which vaccination rates have fallen so low that diseases such as measles and whooping cough are once again becoming endemic. In March 2008, before he had admitted that it was his unvaccinated patient that had brought measles back from Switzerland, Sears wrote on his website, “The recent measles outbreak (if you can call it that)…raises awareness of a growing trend among families to decline certain vaccines.” According to Sears, this was a good thing: “I believe our nation can tolerate a certain percentage of unvaccinated children without risking the overall public health in any significant way. Since most children are vaccinated, our nation has enough ‘herd immunity’ to contain outbreaks like this one.”

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I have another brief excerpt from that chapter (in fact, it’s more or less the exact part cut out by the second ellipses above) in a May 6 post titled “Evidence, herd immunity, and ‘total assholes.’” There’s more information about The Panic Virus on my website, and you can get it on Amazon for the low price of $15 (cheap!).

^ Just in case Sears’s page at Hachette also gets disappeared, here’s a screengrab:

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If you’re looking for other ways to stay in virtual touch, you can follow me on Twitter (@sethmnookin), check out my Tumblr (sethmnookin.tumblr.com), or visit The Panic Virus‘s Facebook page. There’s news about The Panic Virus, as well as my previous books about the Red Sox and The New York Times, on my website, where you can also find more info about me, upcoming speaking appearances, and more miscellanea. See you out in the ether…

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