The WHO Vaccine Safety Summit – from someone who was actually there

By Helen Petousis Harris 14/01/2020 28


The conspiracy

I saw a new conspiracy theory flying around the other day. According to the conspiracy (that seems to originate from Del Bigtree), the World Health Organization have been ‘caught on camera’ questioning the safety of vaccines.

Gosh this sounds as though someone was a mole at a secret meeting and filmed scientists admitting vaccines were not safe! Could this possibly be true?

Short answer – NO!

The Facts

Actually, the event in question was live streamed in the public domain. You see, the cameras (there were several and I hoped none caught me in the background slouching after lunch) were contracted by the WHO in order to live stream the entire two-day Vaccine Safety Summit to the world – or at least whoever on the planet was interested and wanted to click on the link.

What was the summit?

The Summit was an event to bring vaccine safety experts together, old and new, to discuss what had been learned in the last 20-years, new frontiers, and the plans for global vaccine safety monitoring in the next decade. This is not because the WHO think vaccines aren’t safe. This is because the WHO monitor vaccines constantly throughout the life of the product and beyond to ensure they are very safe – knowledge marches on and scientific enquiry is at the heart of this. I think it is fantastic that the science of vaccine safety is taken this seriously.

The topics during the two-day event were generally:

  • Day one – Global Vaccine Safety Blueprint 2.0 – this is the WHO strategy for vaccine safety to 2020. The document has been in the public domain for months and feedback invited.
  • Day Two – Safety issues reviewed during the early 21st century, novel vaccine issues, new vaccine technologies and delivery mechanisms, frontiers in methodological approaches to monitor vaccine safety, and vaccine confidence

If you think this all sounds like your jam then watch the meeting from the source and in context, not a selectively edited version on YouTube by a conspiracy theorist.

An example of twisting the facts

The meeting footage is being used to manufacture new misinformation. In many examples I have seen on Twitter and other platforms a statement by a scientist that highlights something that is not yet understood is used to imply therefore there is nothing understood. This is like saying scientists are not exactly sure what gravity ‘is’ therefore gravity does not exist, which is of course ridiculous.

I am not going to watch an hour of conspiracy theories on YouTube about a meeting that I was at, but I did check out the first few minutes of the creatively edited clip on YouTube. In the conspiracy version footage there is a snippet of Professor Heidi Larson (The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) speaking about vaccine confidence, a topic on which she is expert. These few minutes are an example of just how far an anti-vaccine activist will twist the intent of someone’s words, and there is another hour of this that follows. Here, Professor Larson makes a statement about how little teaching is provided in medical school about vaccines. She is referring to the challenges some health professionals have when responding to complex questions about vaccines.

This is true, and my colleagues and I frequently moan about how medical students don’t get enough about vaccines. BUT that is not quite the whole story. You see, medical students may take one of a vast number of pathways after their basic training. You don’t need to cram a bunch of stuff about vaccines into your head if you are going to specialize in dermatology, or orthopedics. A medical student is no expert on vaccines (or any other medical specialty), but they know (at least should know) how to find out more if they need to. What is important here is that medical students who go down the road of infectious diseases, public health, or primary health care DO learn about vaccines, and some go on to become vaccine experts. Health Professionals who are not sure about some aspect of vaccines can seek expert advice.

I made a diagram to illustrate the components of a vaccine expert. The Summit meeting attendees fulfil these requirements.


28 Responses to “The WHO Vaccine Safety Summit – from someone who was actually there”

  • Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, I understand you are Chair of the WHO’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety (Chair since June 2019, member since June 2017.)

    I can’t see that this pertinent fact has been disclosed in this blog post? Do you not think you should have disclosed this information?

    Is it appropriate for someone in the position of Chair of the WHO’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety to publish a blog post of this tone and quality?

    See list of current GACVS members at this link:
    https://www.who.int/vaccine_safety/committee/current_members_Dec_2019.pdf?ua=1

    WHO Global Vaccine Safety webpage:
    https://www.who.int/vaccine_safety/committee/members/en/

  • Dr Helen Petousis-Harris, you should have clearly disclosed your position as a member and Chair of the WHO’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety in this blog post, and also any other appointments impacting on vaccination policy.
    .
    You should also have clearly disclosed any of your associations with the vaccine industry in this article, i.e. conflicts of interest.

    The failure to disclose conflicts of interest by people associated with the vaccine industry and also influential on vaccine policy is a serious matter resulting in a lack of transparency and accountability. It’s also crucial to have a publicly accessible historical record of influential positions and conflicts of interest.

    I recently raised this matter in a rapid response on The BMJ, see:
    ‘Vaccine hesitancy and Stanley Plotkin – conflicts of interest must be properly disclosed’:
    https://www.bmj.com/content/367/bmj.l6926/rr-9

    Can you please respond with information re your current and past appointments influencing vaccination policy, and associations with the vaccine industry?

    • Elizabeth, you are trolling. As I said, my disclosures are on my blog page, including the industry ones.

  • @Elizabeth Hart – I see you are one of two people running a website advancing the theory that overvaccination is a real and presenting problem.

    Why have you not directly disclosed this in your post?

    I note this is serial behaviour – you have previously not disclosed your interests in this post on this site. https://sciblogs.co.nz/code-for-life/2018/05/11/faking-an-hpv-vaccine-claim-in-more-ways-than-one/

    Is it appropriate that a person whose beliefs could accurately be described as “fringe”, “politically motivated” or “hazardous to public health” questions the integrity of a blogger actively posting on her own blogpage with all the attached background information?

    Or is disclosure only a one-way street?

  • @Elizabeth Hart it is more than appropriate that Dr Petousis-Harris, as the Chair of the WHO’s Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety posts a response to yet another conspiracy that is hazardous to public health. Dr Petousis-Harris’s substantial expertise, presence at this meeting and experience with vaccine conspiracies make her incredibly well placed to comment and she has done so with the scientific rigor and respect this area deserves.

  • Hi Elizabeth –

    It’s customary for blogs for details about authors to be on an author’s page.

    This is also true of most media outlets, and, for that matter, political party websites. (You claim expertise in politics.) I’d like to think most people are familiar with this.

    On the masthead of this site, there is a link ‘Our bloggers’. You will find details there. It’s the obvious place to check – right? (Free disclosure: I’m one of the writers.)

    Just a few comments about your approach. You claim a focus including querying conflicts of interest. That has you focusing on the people, not medical practice—i.e. ad hominem.

    There is a place for querying CoIs, but it’s really if they are saying things at odds with sounds science. You really have to start with that first. Jumping past that to start with COIs is doing an end-run that avoids testing if your ideas about the science the unsound. And you do have to test, not find things that look as if they support it (that’s the opposite of how science works, but it’s common for those trying to “oppose” things, unfortunately for everyone).

    I think it’s common known that in politics (which you claim an expertise in) that it’s standard fare to attack people as a way to try “score” while simultaneously avoiding engaging in anything of real substance.

    Essentially, it’s cop-out, a common bullying tactic that tries to set up that “there is fault”, without actually first establishing that there is actually fault.

    By starting with CoIs without engaging with the science, it has you starting by using the ‘argument of last resort’. I seem to remember there’s an excellent quote of Maggie Thatcher saying words to that effect that she was happy for people to do that because it exposed that their complaints had nothing of substance.

    Finally, a quick point re “over-vaccination”. This isn’t my experience (and with respect, I don’t think it’s yours either), but the main “risks” of “over vaccination” are financial, not medical. The institutions that organise vaccinations, given choice, would prefer not to waste money. If it’s not needed they’d rather direct the money to something else. They’re not exactly rolling in it, and there are plenty of diseases we can direct money at.

    They don’t have an incentive to waste vaccinations to begin with.

    It’s also one benefit of groups like the Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety: they decide on the basis of science, not commercial interests.

  • Grant – I agree wholeheartedly with your and Hannah’s comments. It is obvious to anyone with enough skills to click a link and read to find out what Helen’s skills and qualifications are. She is probably the one with the most expertise to give a view of what happened and what it means. I found it very informative.
    Elizabeth cannot counter these facts so she is reduced to running the latest string of her conspiracy theories. I look forward to more articles by Helen and less comments by Elizabeth.

  • Is this the whole article? I didn’t find this very informative at all. I watched the summit footage and I don’t feel as though there was any added value or clarification from reading this at all.
    One thing i have taken away from the summit is that we need better safety monitoring and less gaslighting of parents when their childs health has been affected by known and listed side effects of vaccines. This is unethical and results in people losing trust in the product and the practitioner. We should be able to openly discuss the risks without being called a troll or antivaxxer. As someone who has worked in the health industry most of my life I feel disheartened to see the people who I once respected turn a blind eye to those who they have failed, the children. While I believe their intentions started off in good faith, no one can deny our children are sicker than ever and to deny and gaslight a distraught parent after their child has been injured is just unethical and immoral.

  • K so wait are you trying to pull a fast one here? From one of the videos and the actual transcription that I heard one of the things mentioned was how the frontline people, the doctors are “wobbly” (meaning they question vaccine safety), is that misinformation too? She states that they don’t get enough time on vaccines in med school. But here you are arguing that this is misinformation because doctors and anyone specializing in vaccines will get more time or learn more. This is a lie they learn how vaccines are supposed to work and the schedule, who are you trying to kid. Your trying to say an oncologist won’t learn more about vaccines right? Well
    I highly doubt anyone is asking an oncologist about vaccine safety… They are asking their pediatrician or doctor when they bring their baby in for a well visit, and they don’t have the information or studies to reassure parents. Come on now Helen you know she’s not talking about oncologists okay she’s talking about pediatricians and doctors getting questions they can’t answer. If they can’t answer questions about safety and ingredients they shouldn’t be prescribing it.

    • Lisa,
      I think you misunderstand the messages. Of course pediatricians learn about vaccines, they learn a lot about vaccines. People who vaccinate are provided with training and access to further expertise if they need it. What these doctors and nurses are now facing are people coming with misinformation that they found on the internet, posted on Facebook by a friend of a friend, a bot, or an organised anti-vaccine lobby group. The volume of constantly morphing material is vast, this stuff changes by the second. While the doctor or nurse may know the facts about the vaccines it is very difficult to be prepared to answer a barrage of questions based on myths couched in pseudoscience on the fly if they have not heard today’s new myth. You are cherry picking here to try and show vaccinators don’t know anything about vaccines, which is not true, rather than trying to understand the context in which this discussion occurred. My point was that vaccinators are trained in this topic and that does not happen in medschool.

  • I don’t use facebook or instagram and if I did, I wouldn’t use it to make medical decisions. There were many troubling statements made at the summit but I will address the point of your article. The “conspiracy video” you clearly didn’t watch by your own admission isn’t twisting anything. I watched your link I skipped to Prof. Heidi Larson’s presentation. She uses statements such as “an issue with confidence OF health care providers, “wobbly” health professional frontline, she states some is not misinformation but seeding doubt and asking questions, “ambiguity of safety studies”. I could go on but lets get to your article and response here. In your article you say, “She is referring to the challenges some health professionals have when responding to complex questions about vaccines”, Now you are saying its all this constantly “morphing material”. Well which is it Helen, is it psuedoscience they should easily be able to debunk or complex questions they can’t seem to answer? What I think you mean is “emerging scientific studies”, anyone can google studies and read. A doctor who has gone to medical school for 9 years should be able to discuss studies with patients. A vaccinator by definition is a person who administers vaccinations. Vaccinators ARE nurses, doctors, and pediatricians, so they should know the studies the CDC uses to “prove” safety. They are not bringing their doctor misinformation to discuss, they are asking for the insert, wanting to know about ingredients, asking about safety studies. How is this misinformation? Wanting to discuss current science around vaccines with the very person administering it isn’t at all crazy. They should be able to back up their position confidently and reassure their patient with science that these vaccines are safe. No one is cherry picking anything or taking anything out of context. It is you who are ignoring the statements made, it’s as if you weren’t even there. Why write this article and address the video if you aren’t willing to discuss the statements made in the video?

  • Hi,

    Just a thought for those objecting –

    My read on what has been done is not to “alter the contents of the video” or similar, but to set up a different context the statements are read in so they read as referring to things the speakers are not talking about.

    The speakers are talking to people who know the wider story of vaccines and the issues involved very well. An upshot is speakers often use open statements without giving specifics as they know those listening will fill them in. It’s what we all do when we know the people listening already know the background.

    It’s very easy to ‘play’ open statements. It’s the stuff of tit-for-tat propaganda.

    As one example, there’s a (longish) statement about difficulties in tracking illnesses in some places that doesn’t say what countries are being referred to — it’s an open statement. If someone (Bigtree in this case) introduces a context of “these are things we should be concerned about”, the “we” implies their followers and where they live. In practice that passage likely refers to places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where infrastructure is poor. (Not just health infrastructure, all kinds of infrastructure.)

    It pays to try understand what speaker (writer, etc) intends, not what you ‘might’ read into it!

    In the case of open statements, you need to know the background.

    It doesn’t take much to make open statements look like they’re saying things they aren’t, unfortunately 🙁

    About doctor, nurses, etc., knowing about vaccines: yes, it’d be great if they knew enough to explain the overall nature of things to patients and answer basic questions, BUT: It doesn’t make sense to ask them learn about vaccines at the level of people who develop vaccines. Learning how to make vaccines is a full-time job over many years. Doctors, nurses, etc., diagnose and treat a wide range of illnesses. What you want is for them to know is how to diagnose and treat you for those illnesses. You do want them to know enough to know when to turn to a specialist if they need them, and to be able to talk to them, as Helen mentioned. But there’s a point at which questions about how any vaccine or drug is made or tested go past what they need to do their job.

    If you want to know about how vaccines are researched and developed, the best people to ask are vaccine researchers and developers, right? Vaccine developers include scientists by the way, and in some cases people who are double MD-PhDs – it’s not all about companies!

  • As I patiently await a reply from Helen I can’t help but reread the comments. Helen your comment to Rhi is off the mark. She says “our children are sicker than ever” and you go on to talk about child mortality. Chronic illness (sickness) is not death. https://www.healthaffairs.org/doi/full/10.1377/hlthaff.2014.0832
    Yes, thanks to modern technology we can keep children alive even when they are chronically sick. Rhi is absolutely right chronic diseases are on the rise, we do see the sickest children now more than ever before. Are you confused or lying?

  • Lisa,

    I take it you didn’t look at the references in Helen’s reply to Rhi. After all, if you had done so, you would have seen that the first reference is about disease burden in terms of disability adjusted life years, demonstrating that our children are not “sicker than ever.”

    Helen’s further references then demonstrate that child mortality is also declining.

    There’s no confusion or lying there, just an apparent inability of someone to read or understand references.

  • Actually I did look at it I’m not arguing mortality as in death, look at chronic disease as in sickness. Did you not see the link I posted all these diseases are going up in children. Just because they can live longer with the illness isn’t what the original poster was arguing. Are you seriously arguing that we have healthier children now? https://www.focusforhealth.org/chronic-illnesses-and-the-state-of-our-childrens-health/
    Oh and Helen, I would love a reply to my comment above? Thought we were having a discussion about your article?

  • Lisa,

    Your reference is to an opinion from a business person and an accountant (as they describe themselves in their own “about” page), who are well known for their antivaccine stance as well as cherry picking and ignoring science.

    Helen’s reference is from the University of Oxford and demonstrates that the worldwide disease burden of children, using a standard measure of Disability Adjusted Life Years, has declined since 1990.

    I suspect that the University of Oxford has the more accurate and reliable information.

  • Hi Lisa,

    With respect, the article you link to does not support your claims.

    Backing up a bit: vaccines (and Helen’s work) relate to infectious disease.

    The article you linked to explicitly says near the very top, “Infectious diseases have substantially diminished,”

    What they are referring to isn’t relevant to vaccines. The article pretty much spells that out at the start of the conclusion, too.

    What it says that has mainly risen are, “asthma, obesity, mental health conditions, and neurodevelopmental disorders”. None of these are infectious diseases, or for that matter even diseases at all. (I also get the impression this is only about the USA.)

    It does not support your claim of “Chronic disease is rising,”

    The authors write chronic condition, not disease, for a reason! They’re not diseases.

    For asthma, given the rise of cities over the last 50+ years, I’m not surprised environmental factors are contributing to it rising.

    Obesity Helen mentioned.

    Mental health conditions I imagine are related to stress, etc.

    Neurodevelopmental disorders are interesting, but a ‘rise‘ in these as much, if not mostly, reflect better recognition of them – a point the authors note. (When noting a rise, you have to distinguish a rise of observation or recognition from a rise in incidence. Don’t forget many of these are developmental and often (in cases, usually) start in utero – my point being they can’t be related to childhood vaccines as they start before them and independently of them.)

    Things like obesity or mental health, have public health related aspects, but they have nothing to do with vaccines. A large part of what is behind them are social and environmental factors.

    The paper is not calling out some extraordinary “hidden” finding, it is calling out a change in geographical distribution of what the USA medical infrastructure attend to, and suggesting changes to reflect that. They’re saying rare conditions are suited to being attended to in large regional centres, but chronic conditions (not disease, note) might to better with distributed attention. It’s not really even about their proposed ‘rise’ in the end, but where the patients are.

    There is a long-standing problem of people opposed to vaccines being encouraged to take single papers and make claims from them that the papers themselves don’t support. We don’t need more added to that!

  • 2 questions. 1 Without the occasional discovery in a courtroom, how can you be sure publication bias isn’t affecting the experts opinion on the topic of vaccinations, as it seemingly has for all other pharmaceutical products that have wound up on trial. 2 Would placing liability back on the manufacturer’s of the vaccines not lead them to invest more in safety science, to answer all of these questions to which there is currently no answer. I noticed HHS lost a lawsuit pertaining to providing congress with reports on vaccine safety, and how to improve it, having not submitted 1 report in over 30 years. Shouldn’t someone be doing this. Doing a paper for school any input would be appreciated.

    • Hi Rune
      Opinion on vaccine safety is based on many sources of information. Also, these days most retrospective and prospective studies should be registered with a clinical trials registry BEFORE they commence along with the methodology and predefined outcomes or endpoints. That way, they cant pretend that the study never happened, the results have to be reported. Agencies like the FDA or WHO review unpublished as well as published data.
      Manufacturers have to outline their plan for postmarketing safety studies before the product is even licenced. The do support investigator led safety studies – in fact I have had a large grant to assess the safety of maternal pertussis vaccination. However, ideally all vaccine manufacturers would pay into a pool that could be used at the discretion of independent bodies. That is something some of us would like to see happen. But important to remember that many vaccine safety studies are funded by agencies that are not industry.
      I am not familiar with the lawsuit you refer to.

  • I appreciate your response. I have been doing some further research on the topic. I think I have found something more important to focus on than policy and regulations, as it seems those areas are more influenced by money and politics. I find there are many questions yet to be answered in regards to the safety of vaccines, as we do not seem to have a solid understanding of how the immune system works, and how it influences brain development in children. I have a couple of questions in regards to non specific effects. Looking at some research out of Africa it appears that some live virus vaccines have positive non specific effects, while inactivated ones seem to have negative effects, more so in girls. I noticed a measles vaccine was withdrawn in the early 90’s as a result of this observation. Are you aware of any ongoing research to understand this phenomena? Also would it not be considered unethical to be exploring these effects on the population without their knowledge?

  • @Rune, I suspect sea-lioning here, but giving the benefit of the doubt here’s some advice on framing questions or claims.

    You state that “it seems (policy and regulations) are more influenced by money and politics.” and “we do not seem to have a solid understanding of how the immune system works…” If you make statements of supposition like these it helps if you can provide at least some basis for them so that, if they are correct everyone can see, and if they arise from a misunderstanding or from misinformation that can be addressed.

    Likewise, if you refer to specific research its useful (and good manners) to provide a reference to it so others can consider the research and understand how you have come to your point of view.

    • Hi @Rune
      I am still not clear on your question. You have sent links to articles that discuss things we would like to learn more about with regard to the immune system. This is a fertile field of science and there is lots to learn. No argument there. You have sent links to opinion pieces on the regulation of pharmaceuticals. This is also a very broad field of both science, regulation and policy. No argument there. Neither of these arguments tell us how safe vaccines are. Finally the Peter Aaby work. The data from Guinea Bissau has intrigued us for decades. There are unanswered questions. However this is a single dataset and it has been milked for all it is worth. The data was never collected with these questions in mind and while useful for initially exploring these hypotheses it cannot go further than that. We now have a better understanding why measles vaccines appear to lower all cause mortality (including the immune amnesia that occurs with measles infection). With regard to the administration of DTP vaccines, we must look to other research in other populations that is specifically designed to ask the questions about long terms outcomes in children after DTP vaccines. Here is a review for the WHO Strategic Advisory Group of Experts from 2014 – basically, there is a lot of potential bias in these studies. Here is a more recent study that specifically sets out to investigate the question about DTP and mortality. It uses some of the best data in the world and examines outcomes in over a million children.

  • I am quite shocked by the sophistry and evasion of the vaccine exponents here. But this much at least is acknowledged: we do not have an adequate understanding of the immune system to say any vaccine is safe for everybody. Clearly that would be an onerous, unreasonable requurement for any drug or treatment. However, when you are proposing multiple mandatory vaccinations for the entire populations, unintended consequences on an unprecedented scale are guaranteed. No other medicines or treatments are administered whether we need them or not, and we take them as a matter of informed risk only when it is strictly necessary. There are thousands of unanswered, unstudied questions about vaccination. They can be essential life savers in extremis, where widespread poverty and insanitary conditions are an immediate threat eg. But even there, the root problem is not lack of vaccination, it is bad conditions. Question, why not turn this mad, unworkable, totalitarian approach on its head? Research why some people are more vulnerable to disease and what treatments could save them, or alleviate the suffering of survivors. That is the way illness is approached in every other context.