Liberal comedian Bill Maher is fond of ridiculing conservatives by claiming they are unintelligent, backward and anti-science.
So it is with great amusement that we can sit back now and remember all of the times Maher embraced, with his trademark smarmy confidence, the largely baseless theory that vaccines are bad for people.
We wouldn’t normally single out a random talk show host, but the establishment media has gone all in on the theory that Republicans are endorsing an anti-vaccination position when many of the communities that oppose vaccinations are wealthy and liberal.
Maher’s anti-vaccination position was on most prominent display during an October 2009 interview with former Republican Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, who is a physician by trade.
During that debate, Maher expressed opposition to the swine flu vaccination while Frist argued in favor of the shot.
“So why would you let [the government] be the ones to stick a disease into your arm? I would never get a swine flu vaccine, or any vaccine. I don’t trust the government, especially with my health,” Maher argued, adopting an anti-government stance he claimed was normally the domain of conservatives.
Frist dismissed Maher’s concerns, telling the comedian that he was literally crazy.
On his show a week later, Maher revisited Frist debate and the response to it in the media.
“It’s actually a risky medical procedure that begs long-term cost-benefit analysis,” Maher said of immunization shots. “I mean if you don’t believe me look on the CDC website as to what is in the swine flu vaccine. You know, aluminum, insect repellent, formaldehyde, mercury.”
In a November 2009 article at The Huffington Post titled “Vaccination: A Conversation Worth Having,” Maher provided insight into what source material had helped shape his vaccine skeptic views.
In one passage, Maher cited as “extremely credible” the founder of the group National Vaccine Information Center.
“Someone who speaks eloquently about this is Barbara Loe Fisher, founder of the National Vaccine Information Center,” Maher wrote. “I find her extremely credible, as I do Dr. Russell Blaylock, Dr. Jay Gordon and many others.”
Both Blaylock and Gordon oppose most childhood vaccinations. Gordon has made numerous media appearances amid the recent measles outbreak and claims that he signs hundreds of “personal belief exemptions” that allow children to delay or forgo the vaccination. He claims that the risk of being injured by the vaccine is greater than the risk from the illness itself.
Though Maher claimed in his article that Fisher does not consider herself to be “anti-vaccine,” many observers consider her and NVIC one of the leading anti-vaccination proponents in the country.
The group’s website has frequently championed the work of Dr. Andrew Wakefield, whose 1998 study, published in the health website The Lancet, claimed to have discovered a link between childhood vaccines and autism.
That study, which The Lancet retracted in 2010 after discovering a plethora of errors in Wakefield’s research, set off the most recent wave of vaccination skepticism.
In an web entry in 2010, Fisher reminisced about when she first met Wakefield in 1997 and described him as a freedom fighter.
“Anyway, Ms. Fisher is someone who says she is not “anti-vaccine,” but just has a lot of questions about the long term effect of using a lot of vaccines,” Maher continued. “After devoting her life to studying this, she says that the influenza vaccine studies that have been done ‘are not persuasive in proving that a seasonal flu shot provides immunity.'”
Maher cited other now-debunked vaccination skeptical research during a 2005 interview with then-CNN host Larry King in which he claimed that getting a flu shot increases a person’s risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
“A flu shot is the worst thing you can do,” Maher said. “Because it’s got … mercury.”
The presence of mercury in the preservative thimerosal has been a concern for vaccination skeptics who claim that it causes developmental delays in children. As presidential candidates in 2008, both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton endorsed a complete ban of the compound. (RELATED: In 2008 Questionnaire, Obama, Hillary Revealed Concerns About Vaccines)
Thimerosal has not been linked to autism in any rigorous study. Even after the federal government drastically reduced its use in vaccines — which they did solely for precautionary reasons and under pressure from vaccination skeptics — autism rates have continued to increase.
“It prevents flu,” King told Maher, defending the influenza vaccine, which is the only that currently contains thimerosal.
Maher denied the claim, saying that the long-term consequences are worse.
“Well, I hate to tell you, Larry, but if you have a flu shot for more than five years in a row, there’s ten times the likelihood that you’ll get Alzheimer’s disease,” Maher said, and began suggesting that King stop getting the shot.
The source of Maher’s claim has been traced back to a South Carolina-based physician named Hugh Fudenberg, who in 1997 presented his findings on the vaccine-Alzheimer’s link at an international vaccination symposium hosted by Fisher’s National Vaccine Information Center. Fudenberg was also a collaborator on Wakefield’s now-retracted autism study.
As anti-vaccination views have been pushed to the fringe, Maher has largely avoided the topic on his show. But his vaccination skeptical views resurfaced last month — albeit in a toned-down version — during an interview on his show with Dr. Atul Gawande.
“Flu vaccines are bullshit,” Maher claimed, citing recent reports that the flu vaccine was only 23 percent effective.
“This year’s vaccine, we have a particularly virulent strain that has what’s called genetic drift,” explained Gawande. “It can change on the spot.”