by Robert Webb
The anti-vaccine movement sometimes presents graphs to support their cause, supposedly to show that diseases were on the decline before vaccines came along, and that vaccines had no effect. Graphs seem hard to argue with. They look scientific, represent actual data, and are compelling to many people. And indeed a good graph should be compelling. But their graphs are not good. Let’s have a look at how the true data, which supports the fact that vaccines have had a huge positive effect, can be manipulated to manufacture the conclusion the anti-vax movement wants.
Firstly, most of the graphs they show are of death rates, not infection rates. Yes, death rates dropped significantly before vaccines were introduced because other improvements in medicine and sanitation meant that we were better at treating the disease, but it does not indicate that less people had the disease to begin with.
They also tend to show graphs going back a long time to when death rates for common diseases like measles were very high. To fit these high figures on the graph it’s necessary to scale down all the figures, meaning that by the time the vaccine is introduced you can no longer see any drop it may have caused in deaths.
They never show graphs of death rates from third world countries where due to poor sanitation etc. death rates for diseases like measles can still be quite high.
Here’s a nice graph though showing both infection and death rates in the US and it’s clear from both that the 1963 vaccine had a huge effect.
The anti-vaxxers claim (e.g. here) that death rates are more reliable than infection rates because they don’t trust the diagnoses made by doctors. The idea is that doctors are biased against diagnosing a disease if the patient has been vaccinated against it. But if the symptoms match, why wouldn’t they test for it? We all know that vaccines are not 100% effective. The above graph shows that infection and death rates are very closely matched, year by year, so it seems that the doctors’ diagnoses match the coronors’ reports, so where’s the evidence for this supposed misdiagnosis?
So the best way to see if a vaccine worked is to look at infection rates. I’ve only seen one infection graph presented by the anti-vax side (in several places, but I found it on the AVN website), so let’s look at that in some detail. Here it is:
This graph has already been demolished on Science-Based Medicine, so I’ll try not to repeat too much of that, though I need to recap a little. Mostly what I want to show is some new graphs (the big ones further down) that help explain what Dr. Obomsawin did to create the graph he wanted.
Dr. Obomsawin gives his source for the graph as here:
But a better graph of the same data, where actual data points are shown, can be seen in here:
So what’s wrong with the graph?
Here’s some (but not all) of the ways that this graph deceives us.
- First, note the slight difference between these last two graphs. The latter graph shows a different point in 1959, before there was a ten year break in national reporting of measles. It appears to be a glitch in the former graph, showing a data point in 1959 when no data is available for that year. My guess is that the graph was made as if all data points were equally spaced, then the ten year gap was inserted, giving the impression that the graph dips down before the introduction of the vaccine, when in fact the dip should be spread across the gap in reporting where the vaccine was introduced. Dr. Obomsawin’s graph makes good use of this non-existence point. I have recreated his graph over the top of the best version of the original graph:
- You’ll also notice immediately that his graph looks nothing like the source graph. This is because he has only used a data point every 12 years. So he has taken a graph with 68 data points, and used only 5 of them! When accused of cherry picking the data, he responds:
- “the data was not selectively “cherry picked”, but rather consistently spaced giving accurate data for every 12th year running from 1935 to 1983, a period which is roughly equivalent to a half century.”
But cherry picking can still involve evenly-spaced data. Why every 12 years? Why starting at 1935? I’ll show you exactly why this is so important. Simply start at 1933 instead. We’ll even keep Dr. Obomsawin’s arbitrary choice of 12-year spacing. Here’s what you get:
Yep, it looks completely different, though I’m using exactly the same technique as Dr. Obomsawin to generate this graph from the same original data.
American Family Physician, the journal of the American Academy of Family Physicians, has a feature called AFP Journal Club, where physicians analyze a journal article that either involves a hot topic affecting family physicians or busts a commonly held medical myth. In the September 15, 2010 issue they discussed “Vaccines and autism: a tale of shifting hypotheses,” by Gerber and Offit, published in Clinical Infectious Diseasesin 2009.
The article presented convincing evidence to debunk 3 myths:
- MMR causes autism.
- Thimerosal (mercury) causes autism.
- Simultaneous administration of multiple vaccines overwhelms and weakens the immune system, triggering autism in a susceptible host.
Gerber and Offit reviewed 13 large-scale studies that demonstrated no association between the MMR vaccine and autism. These included ecologic studies, retrospective observational studies and prospective observational studies. The findings were consistent; the only outlier in all the studies of MMR was Dr. Andrew Wakefield’s small, discredited 1998 study, which was fully retracted by The Lancet in early 2010.
They reviewed 7 large-scale studies (again, ecologic, retrospective, and prospective) that consistently demonstrated no association between thimerosal and autism. They showed that the hypothesis was not biologically plausible, since the symptoms of mercury poisoning are distinct from those of autism and are not produced by the thimerosal in vaccines.
They showed that the overload hypothesis is not credible because
- The immunologic load has dropped from 3000 components in the 7 vaccines used in 1980 to less than 200 in the 14 vaccines recommended today.
- An infant’s immune system is capable of handling the thousands of antigens it is exposed to early in life.
- Vaccinated children are not more susceptible to infections.
- Autism is not an autoimmune disease.
No, this is not one of those Mac vs. PC things (although I’m a PC guy myself, but I do own an iPod as well). A little while back I ran across this entry by Mike Adams, the Blue Ranger, Texas Ranger, Power Ranger or whatever he calls himself, of NaturalNews infamy. He linked to Bill Gates’ 2010 TED talk in which he says the following:
The world today has 6.8 billion people… that’s headed up to about 9 billion. Now if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by perhaps 10 or 15 percent
Here is the video in its entirety.
Bill Gates did in fact say that, and through an oversight, or because he thought the meaning was obvious, he did not elaborate what he meant by it. Mike Adams jumped on the opportunity. He set up the above entry, gave a link to the video, quoted the words and clearly implied that Bill Gates knows that vaccines kill and that his comment was meant to say that through vaccines we can kill 10-15% of the world population. Am I reading too much into Mike’s blog entry? No, here are his exact words:
Clearly, this statement implies that vaccines are a method of population reduction. So is “health care,” which all NaturalNews readers already know to be more of a “sick care” system that actually harms more people than it helps.
Thus, if vaccines are to be used as an effective population reduction effort, there are really only three ways in which they might theoretically be “effective” from the point of view of those who wish to reduce world population:
#1) They might kill people slowly in a way that’s unnoticeable, taking effect over perhaps 10 – 30 years by accelerating degenerative diseases.
#2) They might reduce fertility and therefore dramatically lower birth rates around the world, thereby reducing the world population over successive generations. This “soft kill” method might seem more acceptable to scientists who want to see the world population fall but don’t quite have the stomach to outright kill people with conventional medicine. There is already evidence that vaccines may promote miscarriages(http://www.naturalnews.com/027512_v…).
#3) They might increase the death rate from a future pandemic. Theoretically, widespread vaccination efforts could be followed by a deliberate release of a highly virulent flu strain with a high fatality rate. This “bioweapon” approach could kill millions of people whose immune systems have been weakened by previous vaccine injections.
So, to sum it up, Mike Adams, in his infinite wisdom is telling us that Bill Gates thinks that vaccines can be used to reduce world population by killing us slowly, making us infertile or increasing mortality during a future pandemic. I think that fairly summarizes Mike’s “point”.
To be honest I was a little perplexed at the time. What did Bill Gates mean to say when he said if we do a really great job on new vaccines we can lower the world population by 10-15%? As is almost always the case, the meaning has revealed itself with a little bit of time, and luck by happening to find Bill Gates 2009 Annual Letter, posted on his foundation’s website. Here is an excerpt (emphasis mine):
Over the past 50 years childhood deaths have dropped dramatically. Take a look at Chart 1, which is one of my favorites. (I hope you didn’t think you were going to get through this letter without some figures being thrown at you.) What you see is that in 1960, when there were nearly 110 million children born, almost 20 million children under 5 died. In 2005, when more than 135 million children were born, fewer than 10 million children under 5 died. I think this is one of the most amazing statistics ever. The number of children born went up, while the number who died was cut in half.
Not exactly what you’d expect someone who wants to use vaccines as a “method of population reduction”, maliciously of course, to say, no? Why Mike may be surprised to hear that Bill Gates is happy that childhood mortality rates have halved in the past 50 years. He might even reconsider his statements, but I wouldn’t bet on that. Let us continue reading Mr. Gates’ letter (again emphasis mine).
Despite this progress, 10 million children dying is still 10 million too many. Each death is a tragedy. In the United States we don’t think much about young people dying because it is so rare. It would be a huge breakthrough to cut that 10 million in half again, which I believe can be done in the next 20 years.
These words are of course a ploy to cover his real malicious reasons, right Mike? But he’s not gonna pull the wool over YOUR eyes, is he Mike? Of course, you could’ve been horribly wrong in your assessment of Bill Gates’ talk, but what are the chances of that?!? No, no this is clearly a cover up. Let us go on.
When Melinda and I first started our giving, in the late 1990s, our focus was on reproductive health rather than childhood deaths. We felt that giving mothers the tools to limit their family size to what they wanted would have a catalytic effect by reducing population growth and making it easier to feed, educate, and provide jobs for the children who were born.
Interesting; it’s starting to sound as if Bill Gates believes that a better reproductive health can help reduce population growth, a not-so-scandalous claim after all; people with better access to reproductive healthcare and education, especially birth control, tend to have less kids, methinks. This has got to be more covering up of the malicious plan, am I right Mike? Let’s go on reading and uncovering this nefarious plan.
A surprising but critical fact we learned was that reducing the number of deaths actually reduces population growth.Chart 3 shows the strong connection between infant mortality rates and fertility rates. Contrary to the Malthusian view that population will grow to the limit of however many kids can be fed, in fact parents choose to have enough kids to give them a high chance that several will survive to support them as they grow old. As the number of kids who survive to adulthood goes up, parents can achieve this goal without having as many children.
This means that improved health is critical to getting a country into the positive cycle of increasing education, stability, and wealth. When health improves, people have smaller families and the government has more resources per person, so improving nutrition and education becomes much easier. These investments also improve health, and a virtuous cycle begins that takes a country out of poverty.
Damn, this guy is really good at pretending to have good intentions, right Mike? Well, he can’t fool you can he Mike?
Now someone of lesser intelligence, such as myself, might reach the conclusion that Bill Gates believes that through better healthcare, which includes vaccines, better sex education and birth control methods, world population can go down naturally by inducing parents to have fewer children; we can argue about the merits of that line of thinking, but there’s nothing malicious about it. Someone like me, who has not the power to read minds, would rely on what Bill Gates actually says and writes, which seems to suggest that his intentions are pure. It appears he cares about improving the living conditions of the millions that are less lucky than Mike Adams and myself; cares about reducing death rates in children; cares about lifting poor nations out of poverty.
But that’s just me Mike; I certainly don’t hold you to the same standards as myself. You’re free to think as you see fit, but I would advise you to reconsider your position. What would be Bill Gates’ reason for wanting to reduce world population? Less iPads sold for Steve Jobs?
Bill Gates: hero or villain? Far as I can tell, hero.
Joseph Mercola, along with Rosemary Fischer, are promoting vaccine awareness week this week, Nov 1-7. David Gorski, who edits Science-Based Medicine with me, thought it would be a good idea to go along with this and participate fully in vaccine awareness week. So all week we will be focusing on vaccine issues, and doing our best to counter any misinformation.
Mercola, who runs a highly commercialized website, chock full of health misinformation and anti-SBM propaganda, has started off the week with a broadside against the flu vaccine in an article titled: “New Proof that This Common Medical Treatment is Unnecessary and Ineffective”. He gives a Gish Gallop of error and misdirection – far more bits of falsehood than I have time to counter here. That’s the point of the Gish Gallop, it is far easier to create a misconception than it is to correct it. So if you throw enough mud at a topic you can overwhelm any attempt to defend accurate information, and leave your audience with the uneasy feeling that something must be wrong. In the case of Duane Gish his target was the science of evolution. With Mercola it is accurate health information.
Ironically, he starts off:
Armed with the facts, less than one-third of the US population fell for fear mongering. And together, we can do it again.
He accuses health officials of “fear mongering” – his word for warning people about the risks of the flu and recommending the flu vaccine. Of course, if you are interested in propaganda you can use this term to refer to any and every public health campaign. He picks on the H1N1 Pandemic of 2009 – an easy target. He plays Monday morning quarterback, pointing out that the pandemic was not as bad as projected. Again, it is easy to criticize officials for caution when the worst-case scenario does not unfold. When faced with a possible pandemic officials need to prepare for a plausible worst-case scenario, and then hope it doesn’t happen. What happened in 2009/2010 flu season is that the H1N1 flu showed up, but the regular seasonal flu didn’t, and so the total number of total flu cases was less than a typical year. We still don’t have an explanation for this, but it was completely unexpected. No one predicted this – not even the Mercola’s of the world.
After accusing health officials of fear mongering, Mercola then goes onto to relentlessly fear monger about an effective public health intervention – the flu vaccine. Remember his fear mongering from last year? Wasn’t the H1N1 vaccine supposed to cause an epidemic of Guillaine Barre Syndrome (GBS)? Well – it didn’t, and there was a careful surveillance program in place in the UK and US to monitor for any increase in GBS and it never occurred.
Now Mercola is at it again, and his stated goal is to scare people off the flu vaccine. He doesn’t expect to be held accountable for his dire predictions and misinformation – he just dumps as many bits of scary misinformation as he can and then moves on. Again – I can’t get to them all, but here are a few:
“Health officials have leapt ahead with recommendations of “flu shots for all” without safety studies—so by getting a flu shot, you are effectively offering yourself up as a laboratory rat. In other words, YOU are the safety study!”
This is a transparent falsehood. Simply put “flu vaccine safety” into PubMed.org and see how many studies come up. There are many studies looking at the safety and side-effect profile of various flu vaccines in the general and in specific medical populations, including the effects of adjuvants, and simultaneous vs serial vaccination. There is a serious attempt by medical scientists to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of flu vaccines. But Mercola needs you to believe that there is a dark conspiracy and you need him to open your eyes and give you the real information – all you have to do is subscribe to his site.
Australia’s flu season precedes ours, so we can look to them for a preview of vaccine issues. By June of 2010, more than 1,000 adverse reactions in children under the age of 5 resulted in the Australian government’s banning of flu vaccines for that age group. High fevers, vomiting and convulsions were the most widely reported reactions, which are also associated with long-term adverse health outcomes.
CSL’s Fluvax appears to be the main troublemaker. However, CSL has objected to being singled out, claiming any of the other three vaccines on the Australian market could be to blame.
Notice the spin Mercola puts on this news item – he implies that any trivalent flu vaccine can be to blame, CSL says so (since when does he listen to a vaccine manufacturer?). The real story is that there was an increase in fever and other complications from one brand of flu vaccine in Australia – Fluvax. The increase occurred in that brand only. It was not a single-batch problem, and so this was likely a manufacturing
. For this reason the vaccine was temporarily suspended until the facts could be sorted out.
What are the implications for the US? The CDC has recommended that the Afluria vaccine – CSL’s vaccine for the North American market, not be used in children 6 months to 4 years old. That seems like a reasonable precautionary measure. And here we can see the difference between reasonable caution and hysterical fear mongering.
We write a lot about vaccines here at Science-Based Medicine. Indeed, as I write this, I note that there are 155 posts under the Vaccines category, with this post to make it 156. This is third only to Science and Medicine(which is such a vague, generic category that I’ve been seriously tempted to get rid of it, anyway) and Science and the Media. There is no doubt that vaccines represent one of the most common topics that we cover here on SBM, and with good reason. That good reason is that, compared to virtually any other modality used in the world of SBM, vaccines are under the most persistent attack from a vocal group of people, who, either because they mistakenly believe that vaccines caused their children’s autism, because they don’t like being told what to do by The Man, because they think that “natural” is always better to the point of thinking that it’s better to get a vaccine-preventable disease in order to achieve immunity than to vaccinate against it, or because a combination of some or all of the above plus other reasons, are anti-vaccine.
“Anti-vaccine.” We regularly throw that word around here at SBM — and, most of the time, with good reason. Many skeptics and defenders of SBM also throw that word around, again with good reason most of the time. There really is a shocking amount of anti-vaccine sentiment out there. But what does “anti-vaccine” really mean? What is “anti-vaccine”? Who is “anti-vaccine”?
Given that this is my first post for SBM’s self-declared Vaccine Awareness Week, proposed to counter Barbara Loe Fisher’s National Vaccine Information Center’s and Joe Mercola’s proposal that November 1-6 be designated “Vaccine Awareness Week” for the purpose of posting all sorts of pseudoscience and misinformation about “vaccine injury” and how dangerous vaccines supposedly are, we decided to try to coopt the concept for the purpose of countering the pseudoscience promoted by the anti-vaccine movement. To kick things off, I thought it would be a good idea to pontificate a bit on the topic of how to identify an anti-vaxer. What makes an anti-vaxer different from people who are simply skeptical of vaccines or skeptical of specific vaccines (for instance, the HPV vaccine)? I don’t pretend to have the complete answer, which is why I hope we’ll have a vigorous discussion in the comments.
Believe it or not, I’m actually a relative newcomer to the task of taking on the anti-vaccine movement. Ten years ago, I was blissfully unaware that such a movement even existed; indeed, I doubt the concept would even have entered my brain that anyone would seriously question the safety and efficacy of vaccines, which are one of the safest and most efficacious preventative medical interventions humans have ever devised, arguably having saved more lives than any other medical intervention ever conceived. Even six years ago, although I had become aware of the existence of the anti-vaccine movement, I considered them a small bunch of cranks so far into the woo that they weren’t really worth bothering with. Yes, I was a shruggie.
All of that changed not long after I started my first blog in December 2004. Approximately six months later, to be precise. That was when someone as famous as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. published an infamous screed simultaneously in Rolling Stone and Salon.com entitled Deadly Immunity that was so full of misinformation, pseudoscience, and conspiracy mongering that it altered the course of my blogging forever. Although I had already been becoming less and less of a “shruggie” about the anti-vaccine movement before RFK’s propaganda piece, “Deadly Immunity” resulted in a significant percentage of my blogging turning to discussions of the anti-vaccine movement and the scientifically-discredited myth that vaccines cause autism.
Anti-vaccine, not pro-safe vaccine
Before I try to define “anti-vaccine” in more detail, I should take a moment to point out that, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in nearly six years blogging about vaccines and the pseudoscience used to attack them, it’s that no one — well, almost no one — considers himself “anti-vaccine.” This is very easily verifiable in the outraged reaction elicited from people like J.B. Handley (who simultaneously gloats about the decline in confidence in vaccines among parents), Jenny McCarthy, and Dr. Jay Gordon when they are described as “anti-vaccine. Jenny McCarthy, for instance, will reliably retort, “I’m not ‘anti-vaccine.’ I’m pro-safe vaccine.” An alternative response is, “What I really am is ‘anti-toxins’ in the vaccines.” Meanwhile, Dr. Gordon will say the same thing while simultaneously saying that he doesn’t give a lot of vaccines and foolishly admitting in the comments of a blog post that some parents have actually had to persuade him to vaccinate “reluctantly.”
The rule that those holding anti-vaccine views will rarely admit that they are anti-vaccine is a good one, although there are exceptions. It is not uncommon to find in the comments of anti-vaccine propaganda blogs likeAge of Autism and anti-vaccine mailing lists comments proclaiming explicit anti-vaccine views loud and proud, with declarations that “I am anti-vaccine.” This dichotomy has at times caused problems for the more P.R.-savvy members of the anti-vaccine movement, as demonstrated two years ago at Jenny McCarthy’s “Green Our Vaccines” rally, where images of vaccines as toxic waste and weapons of mass destruction were commonplace. Even so, the “Green Our Vaccines” slogan and coopting the “vaccine safety” mantle have been very effective for the anti-vaccine movement. In particular, Barbara Loe Fisher has successfully portrayed her National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) as being a “vaccine safety watchdog” group looking out for parents’ rights, this despite hosting an online memorial for vaccine victims and a deceptive and disingenuous vaccine ingredient calculator.
“I know it when I see it”
In a concurring opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio, regarding possible obscenity in a movie, Justice Potter Stewart once famously wrote:
I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description ["hard-core pornography"]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.
From my perspective, defining what is “anti-vaccine” is a lot like defining obscenity: I know it when I see it. However, as in the case of pornography, even though it’s quite true that what is anti-vaccine is in general easily identifiable to those of us who pay attention to such matters, it’s much more difficult to define in a way that those who don’t pay attention to the issue can recognize. This difficulty is complicated by the fact that there are a number of different flavors of anti-vaccine views ranging from (I kid you not) the view that vaccines are a tool of Satan todepopulate the earth to much milder views. It’s also important to realize that most parents who buy into anti-vaccine views do so out of ignorance, because they have been misled, rather than due to stupidity. When I “go medieval” on anti-vaccine activists, my ire is almost always reserved for the leaders of the anti-vaccine movement, who spread misinformation.
When I’m actually in an exchange with someone whom I suspect of having anti-vaccine views, one rather reliable way of differentiating fear from real anti-vaccine views is to ask a simple question: Which vaccines do you think that, barring medical contraindications, children should receive? If the answer is “none,” then I’m pretty much done. I know I’m almost certainly dealing with an anti-vaccinationist. Be aware that this question may require some pushing to get an answer. Rarely am I able to get a definitive answer on the first try, because most anti-vaccine advocates are cleverer than that. They realize that I’m trying to get them to admit that they are anti-vaccine. Even so, if I ask something like, “If you had it to do all over again, would you vaccinate your child?” or “If you have another child, will you vaccinate that child?” I will usually get the candid response I’m looking for.
“Vaccines don’t work”? “Vaccines are dangerous”? They’re both!
If you look at the types of arguments used to oppose vaccination, they will almost always boil down to two different flavors, either that vaccines don’t work or that vaccines are somehow dangerous. Of course, we discuss the latter argument here all the time when we point out studies that refute the alleged link between vaccines and autism. Like the slogan “Tastes great, less filling,” both of these claims often co-exist to differing degrees, with some anti-vaccinationists arguing that both are true: Vaccines don’t work and they are dangerous.
This being the real world, one has to remember that vaccines are not perfect. They are not 100% effective, and there can be rare serious side effects. What differentiates anti-vaccine cranks from, for example, scientists who deal with issues of efficacy versus side effects and potential complications all the time, is exaggeration far beyond what the scientific data will support. For example, if the influenza vaccine is less efficacious than perhaps we would like (which is true), then it must be useless. This is, in essence, the Nirvana fallacy, wherein if something is not perfect it is claimed to be utterly worthless. Part and parcel of this approach involves the complement, namely vastly exaggerating the potential side effects and complications due to vaccines to paint them as being far more dangerous than the diseases they prevent. In addition, anti-vaccine activists frequently attribute harms to vaccines that the existing scientific data definitely don’t support as being reasonable or legitimate. The claim that vaccines cause autism is the most famous, but far from the only one of these sorts of claims. It’s not uncommon to hear fallacious claims that vaccines cause autoimmune diseases, asthma, and a general “weakening” of the immune system, among others.
One of the most famous examples of exaggerated harm or nonexistent risks is the infamous “toxin” gambit. This fallacious argument claims that there are all sorts of scary chemicals in vaccines. Of course, there are all sorts of chemicals with scary names in vaccines, just as there are all sorts of chemicals with scary names in almost everything, from food to clothing to household cleaners, among others. The dose makes the poison, and the amounts of these chemicals, such as formaldehyde, are tiny. As we’ve pointed out time and time again, for instance, the amount of formaldehyde in vaccines is so tiny that it’s overwhelmed by the amount of formaldehyde made as a byproduct of normal metabolism. Then, of course, there are the chemicals claimed to be in vaccines that are, in fact, not in vaccines. The most famous of these is undoubtedly the infamous “antifreeze in vaccines” gambit. Finally, there is the claim that there are “aborted fetal parts” in vaccines. This particular claim comes from the fact that, for some vaccines, the viruses used to make the vaccines are grown in a human cell line derived from an aborted fetus.
Overall, the “tastes great, less filling”-type anti-vaccine claims that vaccines are dangerous and don’t work, can be differentiated from scientifically valid concerns about the efficacy and safety of vaccines on the basis of how evidence is treated and the types of arguments that are used. Scientists, of course, tend to be a lot more measured and express the level of uncertainty in their claims; anti-vaccine activists are under no such constraints. When, for example, scientists debated how to respond to the H1N1 pandemic last year, there was considerable uncertainty about how to do it, when to do it, and how to formulate the vaccines. Which adjuvants? Should we use squalene in order to decrease the amount of antigen used? Contrast this to the anti-vaccine arguments, which tended to argue that H1N1 wasn’t harmful, that the vaccine was toxic and wouldn’t work, and even that it was a New World Order plot.
As we all know, when the 2009 H1N1 (swine flu) influenza started spreading across the globe, a lot of preparation took place to stop it from spreading, yet it still did. The World Health Organization declared it a pandemic in June 11, 2009. Luckily, the toll in human lives of this pandemic was quite mild, given our worst expectations. That is a good thing, especially for the anti-vaccine advocates who have jumped at the opportunity to blame anyone and everyone involved in the preparation and prevention efforts of fear mongering. “You told us a lot of people could get sick and die; that didn’t happen therefore you lied to us, to fill your pockets with cash” is how the general argument goes. The words may not be the exact ones you’ll hear, but that is the sentiment in a nut shell.
Here is what Meryl Dorey, head of the no-longer-a-charity Australian Vaccination Network tweeted recently:
The link she provides takes you to this web page. Clearly, Dorey agrees with the article, otherwise she wouldn’t have linked to it as she did. Thus, she must agree with the following from the article:
Our health officials still insist on describing the swine flu (H1N1) as a pandemic – even though the UK’s health supremo admitted this week that just 70 people died from the infection, forgetting that he had predicted 750,000 deaths.
Of course, swine flu was never a pandemic even though the World Health Organization (WHO) classified it as such in 2009, and regulators and researchers the world over have perpetuated the myth.
Before the pandemic classification, drug companies had got purchase agreements out of governments around the world that were triggered the moment a pandemic was announced. GlaxoSmithKline made $698m in extra sales from its Pandemrix swine-flu shot alone.
Let us distill the above “argument” so we can analyze it and see if it is a good argument or nonsense. Basically they, and Dorey by endorsement, are saying that because number of deaths from swine flu was low, this was not a pandemic, and also throw in the “Big Pharma made money” line to imply that the reason the WHO declared the 2009 H1N1 as a pandemic was to increase profits for Big Pharma. That money argument is so baseless in and of itself that doesn’t deserve to be addressed. Anyone willing to start and end the conversation at “someone made money therefore we were lied to” is immune (pun intended) to reason and logic.
In order to see through the incredibly ridiculous argument that Dorey & Friends are making, we need to understand what a pandemic is. What does it mean for a disease to “go pandemic”? The answer is simple: pandemic refers to an infectious disease that has spread a lot, geographically. So you need two components to have a pandemic: 1) an infectious disease, which swine flu is, that 2) has spread to a lot of countries/continents, which swine flu did.
Pandemic does not refer to numbers of people infected, number of deaths, or the rate at which the disease kills. It refers to how widespread geographically the disease becomes. That’s it. You don’t have to believe me. Here (page 11) is the table of the six phases of a pandemic, as defined by the WHO.
It is clear to anyone who can, and is willing, to read and comprehend the English language that pandemic refers to geographical spread of the disease and has nothing to do with mortality. Nowhere in that table is mortality mentioned. It simply is not part of the equation, so far as the definition of the word pandemic is concerned.
Which brings us to the question: Why then are the anti-vaccine advocates pretending that there was no pandemic? There are only a few reasons this would happen that I can think of:
- They are ignorant of the meaning of the word “pandemic”
- They have no research skills, and are unable to do a Google search to find out the meaning of the word “pandemic”
- They are fully aware of the meaning of the word “pandemic” but still make the bad argument, while knowing it to be without merit, which is a questionable practice to say the least
- They could care less about the facts and will say anything their agenda demands
- A combination of the above
Regardless of the reason why they got it so wrong, how much trust can we have in them if they cannot even get these simple things right? How can we rely on them to provide us with real, true information for more complex issues, if they screw up so bad with simple ones? The only way, the anti-vaccine front can say that the 2009 H1N1 pandemic was not a pandemic is by showing evidence that it didn’t spread worldwide and was contained within two countries in one WHO region. They cannot do that; the facts are not on their side. As of the last count, the 2009 H1N1 had spread to more than 214 countries worldwide.
The conspiracy article Dorey gladly and mindlessly linked to ends up with this:
Pandemic – or egg on face?
Pandemic; and egg on the anti-vaxxers face.
Not that this will settle anything, because science fact is not decided by arguments from popularity, but I think it is important to point this out. Many in the anti-vaccine community appeal to a “mommy knows best” argument, in which they will tell a very emotional story about how a mother saw their child fade away right after getting a vaccine. McCarthy herself has told her son’s story many times, telling us how she, to paraphrase, saw his soul fade away right after the vaccine. The implication is that mothers of autistic children know that their children’s autism is caused by vaccines.
Nevertheless, surveys do not support this notion. A survey of 62 families of autistic children found out that only 29% of parents of autistic children blame vaccines for their children’s autism (page 6). So if mothers know best, it appears McCarthy is in the minority within the community of parents of autistic children. It appears, at least from this survey, that about 70% of parents of autistic children do not blame vaccines for their children’s autism. So if the results of this survey hold, and can be extrapolated out to the entire population of parents of autistic children, which is quite a stretch to be honest, it would appear that for every mommy instinct blaming vaccines, there are two mommy instinct not blaming vaccines.
So what does this mean for the vaccines-autism “controversy”. Absolutely nothing; the correlation, or lack there of, between vaccines and autism is a scientific issue, not a popularity contest. The fact is what it is, regardless of what parents think, and I’m willing to say that even when parental opinion is on my side. Is Jenny McCarthy, and all the rest in the anti-vaccine community, willing to do the same? The answer to that question would shed so much light on their ability, and willingness, to find out the truth.
Anti-vaccination scares are as old as vaccination itself – but now they are putting lives at risk in the developing world
Vaccine scares are nothing new. When Edward Jenner first pioneered the use of the mild disease cow pox to innoculate against the deadly small pox in the 18th century, satirists drew cartoons of vaccinated patients sprouting cow’s heads. Now, it seems, every country in the developed world has their own type of scare. In France, protesters claim that the hepatitis B vaccines cause multiple sclerosis, in the US, that the vaccine’s mercury additives are responsible for the rise in autism. In the UK, there was a furore over whooping cough and then, famously, MMR. All have been exposed as groundless fears, yet anti-vaccine feeling continues to reverberate on the the internet. Now doctors warn that such rumours from the UK, Europe and the US are spilling over into the developing world, where they are threatening to derail global vaccination programmes. Terrifyingly, this means putting the lives of thousands of children at risk.
In South Africa, concerns about MMR, generated by coverage in the rest of the English-speaking world – including the UK – have led to an unwillingness to receive the vaccine, and there has been an outbreak of nearly 7,000 cases of measles. For children with poor health and limited access to medical services, this decision has been disastrous. There have already been hundreds of deaths.
Meanwhile, in India the government has recently overturned recommendations from its own scientific advisers to include the Hib (shorthand for a bug called Haemophilus influenzae) vaccine in its basic childhood programme, despite the fact that the World Health Organisation says that 20% of the 400,000 childhood deaths from pneumonias caused by Hib worldwide occur in India. In the UK, childhood Hib vaccination has seen Hib-caused meningitis (the more common Hib illness in the developed world) fall away to almost nothing. Yet Indian lobbying groups, led by opposition politicians, still claim that Hib vaccines are not only unnecessary, but have caused a number of deaths. The tactics of the Indian anti-Hib groups draw directly on the work of UK and US anti-vaccine websites.
Our anti-vaccine fears, and the groups set up to highlight them in the developed world, may not directly cause these problems, but are “fuelling and amplifying them”, according to Dr Heidi Larson of the vaccine programme and policy group at Imperial College London. Shockingly, just five minutes spent looking at websites critical of vaccines increases your perceptions of the risks, and reduces the perceptions of the risks of not being innoculated, according to a recent paper from a German group published in the Journal of Health Psychology. Rumours about vaccines quickly gain credence in the internet hothouse, with sites feeding off each other. Many sites will tell you that four girls in India died within 24 hours of receiving HPV vaccines. What they don’t say is that two died in road crashes, one from a snake bite, and one fell down a well. Add this rumour to the feeling that vaccination is something that is done to you by government, by global agencies or by big pharmaceutical companies, and conspiracy theories are virtually guaranteed.
So what can be done? So far, campaigners have insisted on more information, awareness and education. But this approach has failed. Instead, the idea of each country taking ownership is being explored, along with advocacy and immediate action to quell rumours.
The Australian Vaccination Network, a “green our vaccines”, anti-vaccination group has been stripped of its charity status on Thursday, 10/14/10, by the NSW Office of Liquor, Gaming and Racing (OLGR) because it failed to publish the disclaimer on their website, as recommended by the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC), which “led to appeals not being conducted in good faith,” according to the official letter sent to the AVN by the OLGR.
The HCCC, following an investigation of the AVN, had suggested that the AVN publish a disclaimer on its website. The AVN refused to do that, which prompted the HCCC to issue a public warning about the organization and its true nature. The disclaimer the HCCC asked the AVN to display on its website was as follows:
- The AVN’s purpose is to provide information against vaccination, in order to balance what it believes is the substantial amount of pro-vaccination information available elsewhere.
- The information provided by the AVN should not be read as medical advice.
- The decision about whether or not to vaccinate should be made in consultation with a health care provider.
The AVN’s leader, Meryl Dorey has time and over again insisted that the group is not anti-vaccination, but pro-informed choice. I do not intend to get into that argument, but I will leave my readers with a snapshot taken from the AVN’s website store, where they were selling the following T-shirts. Click on the image to see the full size version; the writing on the t-shirt says “Love them, Protect them Never Inject them”.