Saturday, June 20, 2009

Why the Anti-Vaccine Movement is Completely Illogical

Today I'd like to post some information about vaccines. This is, to me, a very important issue. Let me preface anything I rant about here by saying that I have a degree in biology and I studied virology, pathology, epidemiology, and statistics as part of my education. I am not just some opinionated person here - I have read the original research papers and evaluated both the methodology and the statistical analyses for myself. I understand how viruses and human bodies work better than most people.

Just thought I would point that out first.

In recent years, people have begun to distrust the vaccines that people cheered about just a generation or two ago. Mostly this began with a UK study about the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine, which I will tear apart in detail further on, but it is partially a problem with visibility. Half a century ago, people died or were disabled due to polio, measles, rubella, etc. on a regular basis. No, scratch that - children died from those diseases at a predictable frequency. Many, many families lost children to measles encephalitis, had a child blinded by rubella, or had a child confined to a wheelchair (or worse, an iron lung) by polio. It was tragic, but it was not uncommon. Vaccines changed all that, and at first people were grateful. Those people who are now in their 50s and 60s all vaccinated their children (those of us born in the 1970s and 1980s) because they remembered losing a classmate or having a disabled relative from theses diseases and they knew that a few pinpricks were worth the protection.

Then people forgot - or, more accurately, never knew just how bad it had been.

Now is a good time to explain herd immunity. As an example, measles is highly contagious and requires well over 90% of the population to be vaccinated in order to prevent disease outbreak and protect the small percentage of people that react badly to vaccines or cannot get vaccines for whatever reason. We do not force people with certain allergies to the serum, or who have parents or siblings that have had a bad reaction to a vaccine, to get vaccinated. For those few people, vaccines are dangerous. But as long as enough other people are immune due to the vaccine, those people who are not immune are still safe because it's very unlikely that a sick person (say someone new to the country from a place where a vaccine is not available) will come in contact with a non-immune person. They are far more likely to only come into contact with immune people, who will not catch the disease and therefore there will be no outbreak to endanger the unvaccinated few. That is how herd immunity works.

So, as long as people felt a responsibility to protect their own families by getting vaccines, everything was fine. Most people were vaccinated and many childhood diseases became things of the past in developed countries. However, people are self-centred and so once the drive to protect your own children was not as strong because people didn't really know firsthand how dangerous the diseases were, the drive to protect your neighbours and your community was not very strong. As soon as people had an excuse not to vaccinate, and bad information splashed all over the newspapers about how "dangerous" vaccines are, they stopped.

As for where that bad information came from, at first it was just anecdotal - someone had a kid with autism (which begins to show as symptoms around the time vaccinations are being given - six to twelve months of age) and they decided that the symptoms were due to the MMR vaccine, and not some other genetic or environmental factor, and they would sue the doctor or shout to the media about the chemicals in vaccines. This earned some publicity, but the biggest problem was a paper published in the UK claiming that such a link truly existed. Now, it should have raised flags in the scientific community when every scientist collaborating on the paper refused to have their name associated with it except someone who was notoriously anti-vaccine, but it managed to get published somehow anyway (an embarrassment to the scientific community, as far as I'm concerned). It said that it found that getting vaccinated was a huge risk factor for autism, and this is what the papers all ran as the headline the next day. What they failed to mention, however, is that the study only looked at 12 children (a statistically useless sample size to start with), and these children were not chosen at random from the population to get a good sample. Instead, the researcher went out and found 12 infants who displayed the early musculature warning signs of autism, and asked if they had gotten the MMR vaccine. Most had by that point, which was to be expected at the time and with the existing vaccine schedule. Since they all had known possible early autism symptoms, it was no surprise that 8 of them presented with diagnosable autism as they got older, and since most of them had been vaccinated, it was also no surprise that most of those had been vaccinated before they started showing symptoms. There was no control group in the population to see how many kids without autism had been vaccinated versus unvaccinated (which would have at least shown whether the percentage of unvaccinated versus vaccinated in the autistic children was different from non-autistic children). The methodology was so poor that the bias in the study alone made the results totally confounded by other factors and utterly useless for drawing conclusions.

And yet, because all that information was missing from news reports, people believed it. And even after the researcher behind the study has been widely discredited and hundreds of studies showing he was wrong have been published, many people still think vaccines cause autism and so they put their children - and, due to herd immunity requirements, the children of other people with legitimate concerns about vaccines in their family - at risk for the diseases that twenty years ago were largely eliminated from their community.

Why is it that people are so much more willing to believe unscientific crap (even long after it's been thrown out and stomped on by every reputable scientific journal) than they are to believe actual science, like human evolution and early-universe physics? I don't get it. I don't know why people will cling like crazy to totally wrong information that puts their families and their communities at risk. It's totally ridiculous. People need to smarten up and realize that getting measles is not a hand-waving risk. Out of every 1000 cases of childhood measles, three of those sick kids die. Of measles. I don't know about everyone else, but if all the kids in my elementary school had've gotten measles, that means that one or two of them would be dead now rather than healthy, productive adults. And that's just my school. Multiply that by thousands and thousands of schools and the effect becomes clear: before the vaccine, thousands of children were dying of measles (not to mention the tens or hundreds of thousands that needed hospitalization), and now they're not. However, measles is extremely contagious and it doesn't take much of a gap in the herd immunity for it to get back in.

So, anti-vaccination advocates, those are your options: either vaccinate your kids with a vaccine that has been shown to be safe by all reputable research, or put them at risk of dying of a preventable disease. Choose to protect the kids who are actually at risk of a bad reaction to the vaccine, or leave them exposed to death as well through no fault of their own, because of your inability to think logically.

Your choice.


  1. we believe it because it we don't know what the hell are in those things and if they help why do they have all these side effects!! oh and they're not trying to heal us or make us better they want us to get them because vaccinations are a multi billion dollar industry so they try to control us by fear with all this bulshit about how we need them or we will get sick and or could die! fuck that shit! just like the whole medical association! give us a pill for eveything that comes along with a whole list of side effects and then reccomend another pill to help with that and it goes on!
    like all these man made virus's they put out to scare people and then whats seems like dayz later come out with a vaccine for that....ALL FOR THE SAKE OF MONEY and something eles but will not mention FUCK VACCINES FUCK PILLS AND ALL YOUR BAND AID MONEY MAKING SOLUTIONS!!

  2. Hi Anonymous.

    I wrote out an actual thought-out response to your post, but then I realized that you're my first medical conspiracy theorist! Can you tell me all about how socialized medicine means sticking Grandma out on an ice floe once she gets too old? I love that rant - it kills me every time.

    I especially enjoyed the line about how there are man-made viruses that keep getting released (um, not true) and how there are instant vaccines for these things. Can you direct me to these magical conspiracy labs? I'd like to ask them to stop the conspiracy against the gays and the Africans and the drug users and release their hidden HIV vaccine already.

    If you have such disdain for the current state of medical treatment in the world, I highly recommend you get educated and learn something about it, then grace us all with your clearly superior knowledge and fix what we're doing wrong. Don't want to get informed? Then shut up. It's one thing to think things are being done wrong; it's another to be totally ignorant about something (I'd bet you have no idea how scientists determine the lists of "possible side effects" on a given medication) but decide you know better than everyone else anyway.

    I'm glad you seem to like the sound of your own voice, because no one else is taking you seriously.


  3. Thankyou for your blog. I am neither a virologist, immunologist or epidemiologist, and thus rely on experts to study the risks and benefits of various immunizations in detail and provide summaries.

    I have heard about anti-immunization groups which have very strong associations (even board members) who are lawyers specialising in litigation -> sueing vaccine manufacturers (or really anyone involved in the vaccination process) on behalf of families with autistic children. One 'expert witness' often used is apparently the lead author in the MMR 'study' mentioned in this article (although anything with such an incredible lack of internal validity does not deserve to be named a study or research) - Andrew Wakefield. Thus it seems the anti-immunization movement is also a big money industry!

    Would't it be good to start a similar group, encouraging (and providing legal assistance) to the parents of children who came to harm secondary to immunization preventable diseases, in order to sue these same anti-immunization groups. As a specialist in pediatric intensive care, I regularly work with such families, and would be more than happy to pass on buisiness cards or brochures to such families. To keep it fair, I would even be happy to pass on details of the anti-immunisation lobby to parents of children who ended up in my unit secondary to vaccine side effects (eg the vaccine associated subacute sclerosing pan encephalitis the anti-immunization lobby harps on about). However, neither I or any of my colleagues have ever had a child admitted to our unit with a vaccination associated side effect (yes yes, anecdotal, but nothing like 23:0 vaccine preventable : vaccine related illness, requiring 'life support', with a couple of deaths to make someone pro immunization).

  4. The so called "research" is heavily biased.
    The scientist and doctors are funded by big pharma from the top down, from the studies all the way to the family doctors who make a good portion of their income from vaccines.
    It is well discussed that patients who have been vaccinated, for example, and show symptoms of the vaccinated condition, will be classified as suffering from other conditions because the assumption is always that the vaccine is effective.
    So you can't really "know" how effective and useful they are as the forces that be make sure that it is presented positively no matter what.
    It doesn't take a rocket scientist to suspect that injecting scientifically established toxins into a child probably has some effects.
    If the government and medical community really feels it is so safe, maybe you should ask them why the government feels the need to limit liability of the vaccines producers.. Something that is not done in any other industry. Clearly they seem to be aware of possible risks otherwise why include an insurance policy?