Over the past four years, I’ve encountered a lot of people whose views about science, medicine, and vaccines I disagree with. Many of those people are quite angry with me; I’ve been accused of being everything from a paid propagandist for pharmaceutical companies to a baby killer. Still, for the most part, I firmly believe that the men and women who are driving the vaccine “debate” are motivated by their genuine conviction that they are doing what is best for children. They’re wrong, and the effects of their misguided beliefs are dangerous (and potentially deadly)—but I try to respect where they’re coming from and be compassionate about their situations.
Then there’s “Dr. Bob” Sears, a first-rate huckster who has made hundreds of thousands of dollars by getting parents to pay for the “alternative” vaccine schedule he peddles in The Vaccine Book. (As of mid-February, Bookscan, which typically captures about 70 percent of book sales, reported total sales of more than 130,000.) I wrote about Sears’s bestseller in The Panic Virus (if you’re interested in a more complete evisceration of Sears’s work, read Paul Offit’s analysis in Pediatrics). Here’s a brief portion of my analysis:
Sears’s questionable assertions are by no means limited to his recommended schedule. In The Vaccine Book, he says that “natural” immunity is more effective than immunity gained through vaccination and implies that parents whose unvaccinated children come down with infections don’t regret their decisions. The book’s most startling passage, however, is included under the heading “The Way I See It.” “Given the bad press for the MMR vaccine in recent years, I’m not surprised when a family . . . tells me they don’t want the MMR,” he writes. Because there’s so little risk of getting infected, “I don’t have much ammunition with which to try to change these parents’ minds.” He, does, however, advise them against talking to their friends about their concerns: “I also 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.”
I went on to write about how Sears’s downplaying of vaccine-preventable diseases was particularly ironic given what occurred in San Diego in 2008, when “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.” Eventually, 11 other children were infected and dozens more were quarantined (some for up to three weeks); it ended up being the largest outbreak in California in almost two decades and cost well over $100,000 to contain.
Sears’s involvement with patient zero was not some sort of secret: It was also reported in a December 19, 2008 episode of This American Life, in the middle of an interview with Sears himself. (You can hear that part of the broadcast—”That’s Dr. Bob Sears. … Dr. Bob, as people call him, is also the doctor for the non-vaccinating family that went to Switzerland”—here. For people interested in the whole show, Sears comes in just before the the 34-minute mark.) It was also reported in Sears’s hometown newspaper, The Orange County Register. I wasn’t the first person to write about it, and I wasn’t the last–but for some reason, Sears has decided now is the time to speak out about this–and he’s doing so in the comments of his latest Huffington Post vaccine scare-mongering lunacy.
Now, there are a number of odd things about Sears’s comment. First, he denies something that I’ve never accused him of—not in my book, not in an interview, not in a speech: letting a patient infected with measles sit in his office. Then, he misspells my name, which is either an illustration of how little he cares about getting things right or of his deviousness (or both)—because while I assume it’s true he’s never spoken to Seth Minooken, he most definitely has spoken to Seth Mnookin. You don’t need to take my word for it; as you can hear here, I actually taped the interview. That interview was just one part of a long series of back and forths I had with Sears and various staff members in his office. I think they’re revealing—and, in light of Sears’s claim that he’s never spoken to me (or someone whose name sounds an awful lot like mine), they’re worth discussing.
So here goes: On June 17, 2009, I sent an email to Bob Sears’s office asking if I could speak to him “for a book I’m writing” about vaccines. I received no response, so on June 23, I wrote back, saying, “I wanted to follow up on an email I sent last week in an effort to find a time to speak with Dr. Sears for a book I’m working on for Simon & Schuster about vaccines.”
This time, I did receive a response—not from Sears, but from a media relations staffer. Unfortunately, that response didn’t make a lot of sense: ”Thank you for following up with me today, we’re excited at the possibility of working with you and your client. I’ll be in touch, by the end of the day, as promised.” Things became a bit clearer when I got another email the following morning:
I apologize for not getting back to you yesterday something came up that consumed my day. I’d like to put together a nice press kit for you but I’m not going to be able to get it to you until tomorrow. But, here’s something to start with. We get approximately 50,000 visits a month from Canadian users, 70% of our visits are first time visitors, 30% repeat. I have a report I’ll include in the press kit. We’d of course like to book as many 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 because of our specifically targeted audience, especially thevaccinebook.com is that in the price range you were expecting? Please respond with any general ideas/questions and like I said I’ll have a formal press kit for you tomorrow but at least you have some numbers to start with today. Also, what sort of tracking will be used and how would be bill according to tracking?
When I explained that I was not actually interested in advertising on Sears’s website but wanted to interview him, I was assured that Sears would be in touch in short order. After not hearing back for two more weeks, I emailed again; still, nothing. Finally, on July 14, Sears wrote to me, claiming that he’d emailed me previously but never heard back. (Perhaps he’d been emailing Seth Minooken.) We arranged a time to speak, but he didn’t answer his phone. We arranged a second time to talk, and finally, on July 21, 2009, we conducted our first interview; over the coming months, we spoke one more time and had several email exchanges.
Finally, it seems worth noting that during the entire time I was working on The Panic Virus, never once did a representative from a pharmaceutical company or a government official even obliquely discuss any type of financial arrangement. In fact, there were only two people who did: One of Sears’s office minions and the man Sears is embracing in the picture below: Andrew Wakefield.