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Vaccine Misconception of the day – Aluminum in vaccines

November 1, 2010 24 comments

One of the common arguments the anti-vaccine advocates use is the “toxins in vaccines” argument. They say that because some substance in vaccines is known to be toxic, such as aluminum, then its mere presence makes vaccines dangerous. What they fail to mention in almost every case however is how much of said substance is in vaccines, and at what levels is this substance toxic.

Water can be toxic to a human in high enough quantities; it’s called drowning. Oxygen can be poisonous; it’s called oxygen poisoning. The list of examples goes on and on but the take home point is this: any substance can be toxic in the right dose; and most substances will not be toxic at low enough levels. As they say the dose makes the poison. The same applies to aluminum.

So, how much aluminum is there in vaccines anyway, and is that level dangerous for babies? To answer that, the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has set up a short, concise, informative PDF that is available to all, for free, titled “Aluminum in Vaccines: What you should know“. And unlike those in the anti-vaccine camp, the Vaccine Education Center provides all their sources in the PDF itself, for anyone who wants to verify the accuracy of their report.

What they report should satisfy everyone’s curiosity.

During the first 6 months of life, infants could receive about 4 milligrams of aluminum from vaccines. That’s not very much: a milligram is one-thousandth of a gram and a gram is the weight of one-fifth of a teaspoon of water. During the same period, babies will also receive about 10 milligrams of aluminum in breast milk, about 40 milligrams in infant formula, or about 120 milligrams in soy-based formula.

So to put this in perspective: a baby will get 2.5 times the amount of aluminum from breast milk, 10 times the aluminum from infant formula, and 30 times the aluminum from soy-based formula. I know of no babies that are raised without either breast milk or formula, including the babies of each person in the anti-vaccine camp, and any baby who wasn’t vaccinated due to parent’s fear of aluminum toxicity in vaccines.

It appears to me that the anti-vaccine crowd should switch its focus from “greening” vaccines to “greening” baby formula. I hear Big Formula makes a lot of money too out of its product….!

Vaccine Misconception of the day-It happened after the vaccine therefore it was caused by it

September 10, 2010 4 comments

As you research vaccines, you will inevitably come across stories like this one, detailing something bad happening right after vaccines were administered. Some times, right after means a few hours; other times right after means days or even weeks. Unfortunately, it is an all too human reaction to try to causally connect two events that follow each other in time. Event A happens; some time after event B happens and our natural propensity is to assume that A caused B, simply because B follows A in time. However, it behooves us to understand that it need not be so, that this is a common type of logical fallacy. When this sort of sequence of events occurs, people try to figure out what they did out of the ordinary prior to the bad event happening, and that leads to the post hoc fallacy.

To help drive this point home, think about the current egg recall in the United States. As you may know, a major egg recall is in effect due to salmonella contamination. For purposes of our exercise we will assume that you love eggs, and every morning prepare yourself an omelet. Unbeknown to you, you purchase contaminated eggs. You cook them and consume your omelet. The next day you repeat the process, but also go to check out a new restaurant that opened in your neighborhood. The third day, you consume another egg, and a short time after you become sick and the doctor tells you that you have salmonella.

If you didn’t know about the contaminated eggs, the natural propensity would be to assume that you got sick at the restaurant, not from the eggs. The same logic would be in play here: the only thing you did differently was going to the new restaurant, and you got sick right after eating at the restaurant.  The disease followed eating in the restaurant temporally, therefore it must have been caused by it, the fallacy goes. Clearly you would be wrong in your conclusion, as it was the eggs that made you sick. This is why the post hoc fallacy is a fallacy. Just because something follows something else temporally, it does not mean it was caused by it.

The same applies to vaccines. Just because a disease is diagnosed “right after” some vaccines, does not logically lead to the conclusion that it was caused by the vaccines, especially if we play fast and loose with the definition of “right after”. The only way to establish a causal relationship is through large-scale, randomized, double-blind, scientific studies examining the supposed connection between the two events. So far the evidence does not support most of these claims; vaccines have not been linked to autism.

However, vaccines are not 100% safe, just like all other medicine we use they have side effects, mostly mild, but in very rare cases severe. Overall, we must do a cost benefit analysis, as we do with everything else. The harm that is prevented through vaccines, the lives saved, the suffering avoided, hugely overshadows the harm caused by vaccines. This does not mean we should be happy and willing to live with the side effects; if they can be reduced even further we should strive for that, the same way we should strive to improve airplane technology; cars, car seats etc.

Anti Vaccine Watch

September 3, 2010 3 comments

The anti vaccine movement has been gaining a lot of strength over the past decade, not only in the US, but also worldwide. Parents, celebrities and other interested parties have been raising a lot of questions and concerns about, what they perceive to be, vaccine concerns. Many of the concerns they raise have been studied in-depth and we have a pretty solid scientific consensus about them. For example, the claim that the MMR vaccine causes autism has failed to be validated, and in fact study after study shows no causation between the two. The same has been true about concerns about thimerosal (a.k.a. mercury).

However, it is important not to demonize this opposition. I have a firm belief that the vast majority of them have their heart in the right place; I believe they are motivated by pretty much the same values that motivate me; that is the well-being of our children. On the other hand, I also believe that they are very picky with the evidence; that they have very low standards for evidence; that they are inconsistent in their logic and either do not understand, or refuse to acknowledge, their logical fallacies, when they commit them. Some of them seem to be too invested in some conspiracy theory and are ideologically opposed to vaccines to the point that, while demanding evidence for X and Y, they are unwilling to accept any evidence for X and Y that opposes their pre-existing beliefs.

Nevertheless, it is important that we take their arguments seriously and devote some of our limited time to looking into the allegations they make, because it is quite conceivable that at some point they may make a good argument, and we shouldn’t be willing to miss  the chance to look into a real issue. So, here at Vaccine Central, I intend to keep an eye on the anti-vaccine side, and address some of the claims they make, from time to time.

Today, we will look at a website called MothersClick which features an article titled “Flu Vaccine Banned in Australia but safe in the US?????“. You can see right away, from the 5 question marks in the title, that this piece is meant to scare, but let us not reach premature conclusions. Let us look at the actual claims in the article, and see if the evidence supports them.

Although it’s still summer here in the US, it is of course winter in Australia, and the flu season is well under way there. As usual, Australian health authorities have been urging parents there to vaccinate their children against the flu, propagating the mythology that flu vaccines are both safe and effective. But this time around, many Australian parents found out the hard way that they were being lied to.

The first thing to notice is the claim that there is a “myth” that flu vaccines are both safe and effective. That is patently not true, unless one twists “safe and effective” to mean that it is 100% safe and 100% effective, which is absurd and irrational to expect of anything that we use or consume in our daily lives. Nothing that we consume is 100% safe; just a little while ago lettuce was recalled because of E. Coli contamination; more recently a major egg recall has been in effect in the US because of salmonella tainting. Products are being called left and right because we’re finding out that they are not 100% safe. Did you know that hood sweaters are recalled because in some instances, to some people, they can be a choking hazard? Did you know that every year there are about 45,000 deaths, in the US alone, due to car accidents? Does this mean we’re being lied to about: lettuce, eggs, hood sweaters, cars and goodness knows what else? Or is it more reasonable to think that humans, and human produced products, are not perfect, and cannot be expected to be otherwise? Then why would we expect perfection from vaccines? Rationally we shouldn’t.

The fear mongering continues:

Remember: Health authorities in Australia, UK, the United States and everywhere else have relentlessly insisted that flu vaccines are perfectly safe and can’t possibly harm anyone. In the U.S., the FDA has given its approval to the very same flu vaccine that’s harming children in Australia, and the CDC has insisted that all children in the USA — regardless of age — should now be injected with this very same flu vaccine. They did not change the vaccine in any way it is the same exact one!!!

There are two claims to unfold here. The first one is that “the United States and everywhere else have relentlessly insisted that flu vaccines are perfectly safe and can’t possibly harm anyone”. Is that true? Does the US government and doctors tell us that flu vaccines are “perfectly safe and can’t possibly harm anyone”? Let’s check.

The CDC has a whole page about Vaccine Side Effects, where they list in detail all the side effects that have been associated with each vaccine in the US schedule, both Mild and Severe reactions, including the flu vaccine. They also provide detailed fliers for both the LAIV version, and the inactivated version of the flu vaccine. Furthermore, since 1988 the United States has set up the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program to set aside funds to compensate people who are injured from certain vaccines. Even more, the CDC and the FDA have set up the Vaccine Adverse Effect Reporting System used to collect information about adverse affects following the vaccination. It is clear that these facts completely contradict the claim that we are being told the flu vaccines are “perfectly safe and can’t possibly harm anyone”. That claim as well is untrue.

The second claim that is being made here is the one expressed in the last sentences, that the same vaccine from Australis is being given to US children. While this is superficially true in the sense that they all are flu vaccines, this is the logical equivalent of saying that eggs being sold in France are the same as the recalled eggs in the US, because they’re both chicken eggs. The fact of the matter is that the CDC recommends that the Australian vaccine, which was associated with highly increased chances of febrile seizures, should not be used in US children.  This applies only to Afluria, a vaccine produced by the same company that produced the Australian one, not to the other brands of flu vaccine which have not been associated with this problem. In fact, if you look at the inactivated flu vaccine flier at the CDC’s website, you will see a prominent disclaimer in the second page, where they suggest now that Afluria shouldn’t be given to any children under the age of 8. Again, to reiterate the point, claiming that you should stay clear of all flu vaccines because the Australian brand seems to be problematic, is akin to saying that someone in France shouldn’t eat eggs because of the egg recall in the US. It appears as though this claim is not true either.

In conclusion, it appears that this piece specifically is making claims that can be shown to be false with a little bit of research. So why did the author make them in the first place? The reasons can be multiple, and I wouldn’t want to speculate. What we need to take away from this short analysis, is that anyone can write anything on the web; that anyone can make any claim they want on the web; that we cannot trust everything we read on the web and the reliability of the source of the information must not be automatically assumed, and that includes me, which is why I try to back up what I say with information from reliable sources. And lastly, just because a conspiracy theory about government cover up sounds possible, it doesn’t make it so, specifically when one considers all the things the government is supposed to be covering up: UFOs, vaccines, nuclear anything, fluoridated water, power lines causing cancer etc etc.

Vaccine Misconception of the day-Vaccines don’t work

August 19, 2010 3 comments

A commonly used “argument” goes as follows:

So and so vaccinated their child, and he/she still got sick later. Clearly vaccines don’t work, so why vaccinate?

While it is always a good idea to question things, one must be careful not to fall for easily identifiable logical fallacies, as is the case here. Clearly here the unstated premise is a false dichotomy that goes like this : Either vaccines prevent infection, at all times, or they never prevent infection. However, this fallacious way of thinking is omitting the other option, that vaccines will prevent some/most infections depending on the efficacy rate, which varies from vaccine to vaccine.

Consider child car seats for a moment. Every responsible parent straps their child in the seat every time they drive.  Yet accidents happen all the time, and children get hurt, even though they were correctly strapped in their car seats. Does this mean that because car seats do not prevent pain/death in 100% of accidents, that we should stop using them? That would be preposterous and anyone who would advance that argument in the public sphere would be considered mentally ill or insane. Yet it is the exact same fallacious logic as in the vaccine example, however for some reason that I cannot fathom, many parents are persuaded by the vaccine version but not by the car seat version.

Yet there is more to this I think. The parents that are sympathetic to the above argument usually seem to also believe that the side effects of vaccinations are much larger than they are in reality. This combo of misconceptions is very dangerous as it leads many parents to space-out, which has been shown to have no benefit whatsoever, or even worse not vaccinate their children. That results in increased risk of contracting highly deadly diseases by their children, and an increased risk to the community as a whole due to reduced herd immunity.

However, according to the CDC, most routine childhood vaccines are 85%-95% effective. Which means that anywhere between 5%-15% of vaccinated children will still develop the disease they were vaccinated for, and given that we’ve got quite a lot of kids running around in this country of ours, the chances that an adult would have heard/seen the story about a vaccinated kid getting sick, are quite substantial, which in turn helps the bad argument spread.

While 5%-15%n failure rate may sound high, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t work to reduce that failure  rate as much as possible, consider this: in 2003 measles killed an estimated 400,000 children under 5 years of age worldwide. Also consider that the measles vaccine is 98% effective when used as recommended, that translates into potentially up to 392,000 lives saved, every single year. And that is only deaths avoided, it doesn’t take into account the pain and suffering vaccinated children that got a milder version of the disease, because of the partial protection the vaccine gave them, were spared.  Mention that the next time someone tells you they choose not to vaccinate because they knew of some kid who got sick even though he was vaccinated.

Vaccine Misconception of the day

June 7, 2010 Leave a comment

I’m thinking of making this a regular feature. I will list general misconceptions that people hold in regards to vaccines and hopefully that’ll prompt people to research more carefully. Here goes today’s Vaccine Misconception.

“The consequences of being vaccinated with side effects and something going wrong are greater than the risk of him catching something and allowing his immune system to fight it naturally,” she said.

Fletcher’s Mom

Skepdude says – To Fletcher’s mom: I have a 3 year-old. I made sure she got all her vaccinations as recommended by the CDC. She has never had any adverse effects to any of the vaccines. So there, I have one anecdote for your anecdote. It’s a tie. Where does that leave us now? It should leave us with the science, and the science says that your fears are misplaced. Any side effects vaccines cause is greatly outweighed by the harm they prevent. You should not be so willing to have your child catch diseases for his immune system to “fight it naturally”. It’s a fight he may end up loosing, the same way Keira Skaife, Callie Grace, or Dana McCaffery did.

Think of the vaccines as swimming aids. Would you put those on your child to help him learn how to swim, even though they may cause him a bit of skin irritation, or would you throw him overboard and let him learn how to swim “naturally”? If you go the “natural” way, he may learn how to swim and survive, but the likelihood of him drowning in the process goes way up. The risks of vaccines vs. the risks from the disease are like the risk of skin irritation vs. the risk of drowning in my analogy. I suggest you redo your research and reconsider your decision.