Delta Airlines Permits Anti-Vax Video

Jann J. Bellamy, Esq.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone older than 6 months old get the flu vaccine. Likewise, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the flu vaccine "as the most effective way" to prevent infection. Medical research confirms that air travel spreads the flu. According to the CDC, the flu is responsible for thousands of deaths each year in the U.S. And the WHO tells us that annual worldwide flu epidemics result in about 3 million to 5 million cases of severe illness and about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths. So why would Delta Airlines run a three-minute video giving shaky advice about flu prevention during its flights, a video produced by a virulently anti-vaccine organization, the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC)?

How shaky? Enough to prompt condemnation by the American Academy of Pediatrics and thousands of individuals who signed an online petition..

The video starts out innocently enough, with generic advice about hand-washing and covering your mouth when sneezing. Then it starts to veer off the rails, claiming that vitamins C and D can act as "natural preventatives." The viewer next hears about exercising and getting enough rest as means of keeping up the immune system. Not bad advice, but these recommendations don't prevent you from catching the flu. Finally, at the very end, the video mentions the flu shot as "another option"—an odd placement considering the flu vaccine can significantly reduce the chance of getting the flu and is highly effective in preventing flu deaths.

Odd until you consider the source: the National Vaccine Information Center. The NVIC was founded by former pubic relations executive Barbara Loe Fisher, its current president, who dispenses advice in the video. Fisher is described by journalist Seth Mnookin as "the grand dame of the American anti-vaccine movement." According to Mnookin's 2011 book, The The Panic Virus, Fisher stated in a 2009 talk that (a) vaccines are a "de facto selection of the genetically vulnerable for sacrifice," (b) doctors who administer vaccines the moral equivalent of "doctors tried at Nuremberg," and (c) the U.S. government vaccine policy is comparable to medical experiments conducted by Nazis during World War II. These views are still displayed on the NVIC Web site.

The NVIC site is prominently displayed in the video as a source of flu vaccine information. One shot of the site shows scary headlines like "Mercury in Vaccines" and "Aluminum in Vaccines," proclamations that invite readers to further explore the NVIC's misinformation campaign on vaccine safety and effectiveness.

On November 4, the American Academy of Pediatrics sent Delta a strongly-worded letter condemning the video and the NVIC. The AAP told Delta it was "putting the lives of children at risk" and also pointed out that the NVIC "opposes the nation's recommended childhood immunization schedule and promotes the unscientific practice of delaying or skipping vaccine altogether."

A petition has been mounted on the website asking Delta to stop the NVIC video because it "discourages people from receiving the flu vaccine by downplaying the seriousness of the flu and instructing individuals to visit their 'vaccine information' website." More than 2,300 people have signed it so far, including cardiologist and University of Florida medical school faculty member David Winchester, M.D.

As Dr. Winchester explained in an e-mail message to me, "my concern is that while the ad does have some helpful medical information . . . it ignores the fact that influenza is a potentially deadly illness and that vaccines are highly effective at protecting people from the flu." He added that NVIC's "website promotes fear by linking vaccines to diabetes, learning disabilities, autism and asthma."

Delta did not return two phone calls requesting information. However, Linda Rosa, a registered nurse and executive director of the Institute for Science in Medicine, spoke Tuesday with Judd Hooks, who manages media on Delta's in-flight entertainment. According to Rosa, Hooks told her that the NVIC clip will show on overhead screens on westbound flights in the U.S. during November as part of Delta's "Lifestyle 365" program. Hooks also told her that before the video aired he spoke with "someone in Delta in charge of health issues." Hooks and this person reviewed the video "and determined that it does not deter anyone from vaccination."

However, in response to complaints from the public, Delta apparently changed course a bit.

Stephen Barrett, M.D., who operates the Quackwatch website, sent an e-mail message to several Delta officials, asking that showing of the video be stopped. Travis Jackson of Delta's customer care department replied that time on Delta's in-flight entertainment system was actually purchased by NVIC. (Perhaps we should more properly refer to the video as an "infomercial." The YouTube version does not disclose the fact that the NVIC paid to show the video, but I have not seen it in-flight.) Jackson said that in response to the negative feedback, Delta reviewed the video "with our own Health Services Department" and came to understand "how some might feel that the video doesn't support vaccination as the key preventative measure for influenza." In what appears to be an attempt to distance Delta from the video, Jackson added that "the views represented in Lifestyle 365 do not necessarily match those of Delta." He said that the video will end its run in November and Delta will more closely vet content intended to be shown to customers. Jackson did not say Delta would pull the video.

Dr. Barrett subsequently received a phone call from Allison Ausban, Vice President of Reservation Sales and Customer Service, who added that Delta had also consulted officials at CDC who didn't like the video but thought it was not necessary to stop it from running. Ausban also said that Delta did not want to air controversial information and would be more careful in the future. Barrett replied that he was not reassured, because the the problem was not "controversy" but misleading information that had the potential to result in people dying. He also pointed out that the video contained false information (about vitamins C and D preventing the flu) and that another video from the same producer is an infomercial that makes improper health claims for an HCG product.

NVIC's website is full of testimonials from people who claim they or their children have been injured by vaccines. Anyone can report a purported injury to the NVIC without a shred of medical evidence that it is connected in any way with vaccination. These reports are published on the "International Memorial for Vaccine Victims" page of the NVIC website. There is also the florid "Cry for Vaccine Freedom Wall" where, again, without any independent confirmation required, one can report "harassment" for "making independent vaccine choice." In one report posted a few days ago, a grandmother said she does not want her grandson immunized because "I have educated myself and found out that influenza vaccines are mostly ineffective and dangerous."

Wonder where she got that information? Maybe she flew on Delta.

Note: For accurate information about the flu and flu vaccination, go to FLU.GOV, a site managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

This article is an update of an article originally published by Health News Florida and used here with perission. Jann J. Bellamy, a Tallahassee attorney, is founder of the Campaign for Science-Based Healthcare and a board member of the Institute for Science in Medicine.

This article was posted on November 11, 2011.

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