Bob Sears: Bald-faced liar, devious dissembler, or both?

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.

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34 Responses to Bob Sears: Bald-faced liar, devious dissembler, or both?

  1. Catherina says:

    Bob denied that the patient infected children in his waiting room on his facebook page, too. The direct link is broken, but this is the screen capture (link, if the img does not work https://lh5.googleusercontent.com/-8ZoJzrduyGo/Te0e3Rd6rCI/AAAAAAAAAEM/ks5X687wivQ/s400/measleswaiting.jpg

  2. Autismum says:

    Once again, Lilady shows us all how it’s done. She’s fierce!

  3. Billy Rubin says:

    Wow.

    Sears’s ethics aside, the deeper question is why HuffPo continues to allow him a platform. It’s funny you should mention This American Life, as the recent unpleasantries with Mike Daisey demonstrate how a reputable organization deals with a situation when their credibility is on the line. I’m just not sure why they think it’s responsible to affiliate with the likes of Sears.

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  5. Matt Carey says:

    Based on the comment that Catherina posted, Dr. Bob agrees that it is not for him “to decide if that risk is acceptable”. It is up to each parent.

    I disagree when it comes to allowing highly infectious patients to sit in a waiting room. My pediatrician used to have a sign on the door asking that when patients have a rash that they wait outside until they can be given a first inspection by staff.

    But, in other areas I agree to a point. I agree that I had the right to decide if he was worth the risk. He isn’t. Neither him, his alternative schedule nor his alternative medical treatment of autism were worth the risk. “Dr Bob” just makes me glad I have a good pediatrician for my family.

  6. Linda Tock says:

    The more I see of Dr. Sears, the more vile he becomes.

  7. autiemum says:

    One point is that Sears says he tells the worried Mums that the risks of infection are low. Which currently they are since so many people are vaccinated, he doesn’t point out that bit. Then he tells them not to tell their neighbours and friends about their worries about the MMR because then the risks of infection will increase (as fewer people are vaccinated).

    So nothing he says is untrue. It is openly based on taking advantage of the herd principle. If enough people are vaccinated, the unvaccinated get the benefits without needing to bother themselves. He can make his money from the vaccine-fearers as long as there aren’t too many of them.

    The fact that one of his patients started an outbreak shows that he may have reached the useful limits of this ploy.

  8. Lawrence says:

    I believe that type of answer from Dr. Bob reveals a certain pathological personality (common among politicians as well) – when they are confronted with some level of dishonesty or error in their position, they will attempt to avoid the issue by creating a diversion – in this case, Dr. Bob answering a question that was never asked & acting like it was some kind of personal attack against him.

    It plays very well into an established martyr complex at the same time.

  9. Kathy says:

    7 seconds of you and dr bob saying hi is not proof that he admitted the patient was his

    • Chris says:

      It wasn’t supposed to be. It was about Dr. Bob’s denial to talking to Mr. Mnookin, the part where he says “NOR have I ever spoken with Seth” (it is in the box with screen shot of the HuffPo comment). The audio clip was proof that there was a conversation between them.

    • Chris says:

      The proof that the child was Dr. Sears’ patient was this link, a URL that was imbedded in the following phrase: ” in Sears’s hometown newspaper, The Orange County Register.”

      The newspaper blurb says “As it turns out, the boy who spread measles is a patient of Dr. Bob Sears.”

      Does this make it more clear for you now?

      • Caro says:

        And the proof that the child wasn’t one of Dr. Sears’s patients is here:

        http://justthevax.blogspot.com/2012/04/retraction-of-sorts.html

        Now, will Seth be honest and retract his defamatory statement about Dr. Sears, I wonder? I have my betting pool ready…

        • Science Mom says:

          Caro, that is proof that the index case did not infect other children in Sears’ waiting room. Dr. Bob has admitted himself that the child (index case) is his patient (on the NPR interview and on the Dr. Oz Show), just that the transmission didn’t occur in his waiting room. Separate issues entirely. So Mr. Mnookin has nothing to retract.

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  12. Corri Zoli says:

    Vilification is not an argument; this approach says more about PLOS/Mnookin’s style than about any practicing physician.

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  14. a momma says:

    Dr Bob is our Ped Doc and he has always been kind, thoughtful, and sensitive to what my child needs and what I need. Don’t get caught up in the hype on either end. Meet the man as he is intended – to be the doctor that helps guide you through tough roads when dealing with kids and health.

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  17. Concernedparent says:

    The fact that the child who contracted measles in Switzerland was a patient of Dr. Sears doesn’t really matter. It could have been any chikd, including a vaccinated child. We know vaccines do not have a 100% success rate. Parents who choose not to vaccinate their children know to assess the risks of both getting the vaccines or not. Dr. Sears bringing the facts to our attention regarding the ingredients and potential harmful effects of vaccines should be applauded. These are the facts. Many physicians are ruled by pharmaudical companies who push drugs on their patients (often to cover up symptoms than to address the underlying issues) and that to me is completely unethical. What is the cost of other outbreaks from various viruses that we contract on a yearly basis? I just don’t understand how people can say vaccines are are safe when we do not know what causes these developmental issues such as autism. There are countless stories of families who have given their children vaccines to have them completely regress in their behavior shortly after receiving the vaccine. How can these stories be discredited just because the CDC says its safe? I’m glad there has been a doctor brave enough to stand up and question what we are allowing to be injected into our children’s bodies. Modern medicine may be seemingly “curing” some serious illnesses, but we still don’t know fully how a young baby’s immune system can handle everything that’s bein injected into it from the moment they are born. Which may be causing many more problems down the road.

    • Elaine says:

      Correct, the measles vaccination isn’t 100% effective. It’s only 99% effective, according to the World Health Organization numbers.

      The recent outbreaks in Britain and in the Texas mega church due to low immunization rates show what the price for Dr. Sears’ willful ignorance is.

  18. Actual parent says:

    “Many physicians are ruled by pharmaudical companies who push drugs on their patients (often to cover up symptoms than to address the underlying issues) and that to me is completely unethical. ”

    That’s a pretty vile accusation to make. As far as I know the only doctor who has been proved to be taking money to lie about symptoms was Dr. Wakefield, who got a big payday for his fraud.

    ” I just don’t understand how people can say vaccines are are safe when we do not know what causes these developmental issues such as autism.”

    We don’t know what causes autism, but we’ve been able to exclude various possibilities. We know, for example, that “refrigerator mothers” don’t cause autism, and we know that vaccines don’t; both these false ideas were popular at one time, but did not pan out. If you refuse to accept the science on vaccines, are you also “unsure” about refrigerator moms?

    • Billy Rubin says:

      Hi Actual–

      I’m in general agreement with you about the anti-intellectualism and general nuttiness of Concernedparent, especially with respect to vaccines, but I do have to quibble a bit with your disagreement with Concerned’s assertion that “many physicians are ruled by pharmaceutical companies who push drugs on their patients”.

      It’s really not a vile accusation to make, unless perhaps you believe that Concerned is suggesting that doctors are literally fraudulent or are explicitly bribed by drug companies to prescribe things they know to be of little benefit or are even harmful. You may, in fact, be right about that given the overall tenor of those remarks.

      Either way, it’s not insane to suggest that there is much in the system that is disturbing, and I think the assertion that many docs are unwitting shills for big pharma has much truth to it. I could cite example after example in my own experiences as a doc, but in the interests of objectivity, I’d refer you to the work of ProPublica, whose series “Dollars For Docs” should be required reading; there’s also “White Coat, Black Hat” by Carl Elliott which is a good primer on some of the less palatable ways drug companies affect doc behavior. Plus there’s Marcia Angell’s classic, “The Truth About Drug Companies”…I could go on like this for a while.

      I don’t mean to suggest that I hold forth with the anti-vaccine crowd, nor do I think that Sears or Wakefield are misunderstood geniuses or (worse), martyrs for a great cause. But your response of shock–shock! I tell you–at Concerned’s very legitimate distrust of the modern pharmaceutical industry is something I don’t understand. I thinks you protest too much.

      The core of the anti-vaccine movement can’t be shaken from their beliefs no matter how much evidence is marshalled, but Seth didn’t have this audience in mind when he wrote Panic Virus. He was thinking about people who might have general misgivings about Big Pharma and the often perverse financial incentives that drive the American economy, of which medicine is a big chunk of that. Those people, who are frequently only casually acquainted with the science of vaccines, can be easily persuaded by the anti-vaccine crowd. To pretend that the financial structure of modern medicine is hunky-dory, or that Big Pharma doesn’t influence doctors in distinctly malodorous ways, is to engage in a strategy that will send these people straight into the arms of the anti-vaccinationists.

      • Elaine says:

        When is the last time we’ve seen marketing and advertising for vaccines outside of government or non-profit orgs? It’s not a big moneymaker for pharma like Lipitor, etc.

  19. Christa says:

    What a pity that the writer of this defaming article concludes that Dr. Sears is a huckster, a liar,oh, and he feels hurt because Dr. Bob spelled his name wrong in an email. Then has his SEO specialist make darn sure that this obscure blog is in the top 10 results in a search of “Dr. Bob Sears”. How embarrassing!

    • lilady says:

      I’m the person who posted at Dr. Bob on his Huffington Post blog, and I mentioned to him that his deliberately unvaccinated seven-year-old patient returned from Switzerland where he contracted measles and was identified by the San Diego Department of Health and the CDC, as the “index patient” responsible for the huge 2008 measles outbreak

      Dr. Bob, in turn, posted back at me in ALL CAPS and accused me of lying:

      http://scienceblogs.com/insolence/2012/03/27/dr-bob-sears-vs-seth-mnookin-measles-out/

      Perhaps, you should actually read the link I provided, as well as the MMWR article identifying Dr. Bob’s deliberately unvaccinated patient as the “index case” responsible for the measles outbreak in San Diego:

      http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5708a3.htm

      “…The index patient was an unvaccinated boy aged 7 years who had visited Switzerland with his family, returning to the United States on January 13, 2008. He had fever and sore throat on January 21, followed by cough, coryza, and conjunctivitis. On January 24, he attended school. On January 25, the date of his rash onset, he visited the offices of his family physician and his pediatrician. A diagnosis of scarlet fever was ruled out on the basis of a negative rapid test for streptococcus. When the boy’s condition became worse on January 26, he visited a children’s hospital inpatient laboratory, where blood specimens were collected for measles antibody testing; later that day, he was taken to the same hospital’s emergency department because of high fever 104°F (40°C) and generalized rash. No isolation precautions were instituted at the doctors’ offices or hospital facilities.

      The boy’s measles immunoglobulin M (IgM) positive laboratory test result was reported to the county health department on February 1, 2008. During January 31–February 19, a total of 11 additional measles cases in unvaccinated infants and children aged 10 months–9 years were identified. These 11 cases included both of the index patient’s siblings (rash onset: February 3), five children in his school (rash onset: January 31–February 17), and four additional children (rash onset: February 6–10) who had been in the pediatrician’s office on January 25 at the same time as the index patient. Among these latter four patients, three were infants aged <12 months. One of the three infants was hospitalized for 2 days for dehydration; another infant traveled by airplane to Hawaii on February 9 while infectious.

      Two generations of measles cases were identified. The first generation (eight cases) included the index patient's two siblings, two playmates from his school, and the four children from the pediatrician's office. The second generation cases included three children from the index patient's school: a sibling of a child from the first generation and two friends of one of the index patient's siblings (Figure). …"

      How embarrassing that you, who knows nothing of Dr. Sears "alternative vaccine schedule" and his advice to parents to "hide within the herd" (encouraging them and their unvaccinated children to become "free riders"), come posting here.

  20. Corona Del Mar Parent says:

    As a parent of a 2 year old who goes to Dr. Bob Sears, I am happy to have a doctor who does not look to make money by peddling vaccines, or seeing my child too often, or charging an unreasonable amount of money because if his status. Having myself been played by doctors on more than one occasion, I refuse to be treated as the revenue source for medical industry. I am glad that there is a medical office close to where I live where I can get an expert advise that is not driven by greed.

    • lilady says:

      “As a parent of a 2 year old who goes to Dr. Bob Sears, I am happy to have a doctor who does not look to make money by peddling vaccines, or seeing my child too often, or charging an unreasonable amount of money because if his status.”

      Have you got any, um, proof, that physicians make money “by peddling vaccines”?

      Have you got any, um, proof, that Dr. Bob’s “alternative vaccine schedule” is based in science?

      How about ponying up some proof that Dr. Bob is knowledgeable about immunology, virology, bacteriology and the epidemiology of vaccine-preventable-diseases? Show us that Dr. Bob didn’t make stuff up, to pander to gullible, ignorant parents.

      http://pediatricinsider.wordpress.com/2013/01/22/dr-bobs-alternative-vaccine-schedule-he-made-it-up/

    • Chris Hickie says:

      CDM Parent–

      As a pediatrician who abhors the decline in vaccination rates caused by Dr. Bob Sears, I must counter your baseless claims. First, did you know, CDM Parent, that the highest concentration of whooping cough cases from the 2010 California pertussis outbreak clustered temporally and spatially quite well with where the highest rates of electively non-vaccinated children were–http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/132/4/624.full.html? Yes, that is the 2010 outbreak where 10 infants too young have been vaccinated DIED from pertussis–all because of parents mislead by Sears. Also, it was one of Dr. Sears’ unvaccinated patients that caused the 2008 Southern California measles outbreak (http://healthyliving.blog.ocregister.com/2008/12/29/ocs-dr-bob-sears-discusses-measle-outbreak-on-npr/1974/). Yeah, Dr. Bob sure gives folks “expert advice” on whether or not to vaccinate as evidenced by the fact that he contributed to the morbidity and mortality for both outbreaks above by way of his book and reckless vaccine “advice”. Instead of having his patients call him “Dr. Bob”, perhaps they should call him “Dr. Death and Disease”, eh, CDM Parent?

      In response to your baseless charge that I make money “peddling” vaccines: (1) I give the vaccines that are FDA approved (each after years of rigorous testing), so I don’t “peddle” them. (2) I make–on a good day–10% over my purchase cost on those vaccines because that is all the insurance companies typically pay me. This amount I make is called “gross profit margin”. For your consideration, CDM Parent, Wal-Mart would not stay in business if they only made a gross profit margin of 10% (in fact they typically make 25% –please see http://ycharts.com/companies/WMT/gross_profit_margin). (3) I would actually do better financially if I didn’t vaccinate, given the costs of paying the nurses I hire to do vaccines.

      Now, with regards to your visit to Dr. Sears for the care of your 2-year-old—let me show you where you are wrong in your statements about how Dr. Bob is not driven by greed. You say you go to him with your 2-year old. Well, if you don’t vaccinate at all, then there is no money for him to make on vaccines from your child getting them. But, if you do vaccinate, then you do so on a self-pay basis–as in Dr. Bob thinks he is oh-so-good that he won’t contract with any insurance carriers. If you vaccinate and “space out” your child’s vaccines (as Sears–without any scientific evidence–advocates–then he makes more money off vaccines than I do. He does this because he will charge you a nurse visit fee, as well as the price for the vaccine that Dr. Sears gets to set (unlike me, since I have to take what the insurance company feels is reasonable–again typically 10% over my cost). Dr. Sears can also charge you a shot administration fee. In my office if you are self-pay (that is about 2% of my families–I don’t practice in the wealthy area that Dr. Bob does, so very few families can afford to pay out of pocket, CDM parent) then that admin fee is $12 a shot. Also, CDM Parent, what I charge for a the actual vaccine to a self-pay parent is the average of what the insurance companies pay me on my patients with insurance, so I am not gouging them. I invite you, CDM parent, to compare that to what Dr. Bob charges for his shot admin fee (which I guarantee is a lot more), and if you want to email me what Dr. Bob charges you for each vaccine, I will gladly show proof that my vaccine prices are lower than his. Also, CDM parent, don’t forget that if you are spacing out shots, Dr. Bob also makes more of a profit off you than I do because he gets to charge more of those visit fees–which I can’t charge if a parent spaces out vaccines with me because the insurance carriers won’t pay for them. So….CDM parent, do you still want to claim that Dr. Bob Sears isn’t treating you as a “revenue source” for HIMSELF?

      Also, CDM parent, in 2012 I contacted the publisher of Dr. Bob’s so-called “Vaccine Book”. They told me they had sold over 250,000 copies of his book. SOLD–as in “for profit” sold, CDM Parent. Now do you see anywhere posted by Dr. Sears that he doesn’t keep profits from his book? I don’t. Even if Sears only made $1 per copy (a modest estimate), he has made over $250,000 on a book with made-up vaccine schedules. For reference, you don’t have to pay a single cent to get the official, tested CDC schedule. Also, of course, the whole Sears family sells all sorts of “supplements” on their web site—for at least one of which they got busted for selling with misleading advertising–http://web.archive.org/web/20060721171257/http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/personal-finance/producttestimonialtricks-of-the-trade-106/index.htm. I don’t sell supplements at my practice or on my web site. I don’t make money selling sponsor ad-spaces on my web site. I don’t make money writing lame books with no science behind them. I don’t make money selling my name for product endorsements. But Dr. Bob and the Sears family do. Do you really think they sell all that out of the kindness of their hearts?

      For you to say Dr. Sears is not driven by greed, whereas somehow I am is just plan LUDICROUS. As a pediatrician who rightfully believes that Dr. Roberts Sears MD, FAAP is guilty of medical malpractice, I hope you’ve been given reason to understand why “Dr. Bob” is playing you much more so than you think any prior pediatrician you might have seen has played you.

      Chris Hickie, MD, PhD
      Tucson, AZ
      http://www.stopsearsandgordon.org

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