Have you ever found yourself debating someone with whacked out views, been 95% sure you were correct, and then were left stammering when they hit you with what sounded like impressive facts and figures while you couldn’t remember what you “read that one time, a while back, some study or something…Anyway, you’re wrong and your science is bad.”? I know I have, which is why it is my pleasure to introduce my new sporadically-occurring column “Show Me the Science,” which will hopefully provide nice little cheat sheets on a variety of topics. You know, just in case you need some ammunition when Grandpa Burton starts talking about how Obama is collaborating with the leaders of enemy countries, trying to take our guns so that when the gay Muslim Jewish welfare queen invasion comes, we’ll be soft and unprepared.* To kickoff the column, we’ll start with one of my favorite groups, the anti-vaxxers.
Oh, anti-vaxxers–the people who are so terrified of minor, nonexistent, or rare side-effects or who are so paranoid of some big government conspiracy that they’ll risk the health of their children and other people to the effects of easily preventable and in many cases, previously eliminated diseases–it’s perversely charming how they can couch their public health-destroying agenda in a language of concerned parent nonsense. I’d pat them on the head and offer them a cookie, but honestly, I have no idea what they may be carrying, so I don’t think I will. Before we dissemble their arguments, let’s be real–you’re probably not going to change the mind of a hardcore anti-vaxxer. They can write-off all your arguments and facts as evidence that you’ve been taken in by Big Pharma, or Satan, if you’re dealing with a religious objector. Hopefully, though, you can inform and convince those on the fence about vaccinations before they drink the koolaid.
First, some interesting items I found while surfing anti-vax sites, just for fun
–One of them recommended a book written in 1920 called Horrors of Vaccinations Exposed & Illustrated; Petition to the President to Abolish Compulsory Vaccination in the Army and Navy, written by Charles M. Higgins. Yes, let’s all take medical advice that was given before the Great Depression. While we’re at it, let’s ask Higgins to help us install Microsoft Office on our computer. You can find that little gem here in the book list on the page.
–There are people willing to travel out of state to “have the privilege” of exposing their child to the real disease. It’s sort of like a chickenpox party, but with measles, mumps, and rubella. Link is here.
Argument #1: Vaccinations cause autism
No. No, they do not. This is probably the most common and well-known anti-vaxxer argument and it is completely false and has been debunked by medical professionals. The “vaccinations cause autism” argument comes from a former doctor, Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, Wakefield and several other co-authors published a paper investigating a possible link between vaccinations and gastrointestinal disease and developmental regression in the medical journal The Lancet. Now, the paper did not actually purport to show a causal link between vaccinations and autism; what was said was “”We identified associated gastrointestinal disease and developmental regression in a group of previously normal children, which was generally associated in time with possible environmental triggers.” (The “environmental triggers” being the MMR (Measles, Mumps, and Rubella) vaccine.) This is a link to the original article. The uproar started after the authors gave a press conference where Wakefield went a little rogue, saying “I cannot support the continued use of the three vaccines given together. We need to know what the role of gut inflammation is in autism. … My concerns are that one more case of this is too many and that we put children at no greater risk if we dissociated those vaccines into three, but we may be averting the possibility of this problem.” Bam. Bombshell dropped. Many freaked out parents stopped vaccinating their children and the number of instances of preventable diseases rose.
Today, Wakefield is treated as some kind of unfairly maligned god amongst the anti-vaxxers. Why do they say he has been unfairly maligned? Well…his article was crap and so was his statement, to put it bluntly. It was partially retracted by his co-authors in 2004 and completely retracted in 2010 by The Lancet. Additionally, Wakefield lost his license. If you click on the above link to the original article, you can see the word “RETRACTED” across the document in big red letters. If you want a comprehensive rundown of the details, check out this BMJ piece by Brian Deer, the journalist who broke the story, it’s the best I’ve found so far. To put it succinctly, the article’s methodology was incredibly shoddy and filled with discrepancies. Some examples: three of the nine children reported with regressive autism were not diagnosed as being autistic and only one out of the nine clearly had regressive autism; several children had pre-existing conditions before the vaccinations; timelines concerning dates of vaccinations and dates of supposed problems arising from said vaccinations were inconsistent. Most despicable, however, was that Wakefield intentionally falsified his results in order to increase the profits he planned to make in the future with a diagnostic testing kit meant to detect what he called “autistic enterocolitis,” the nonexistent disease he concocted from his fraudulent study.
Since Wakefield’s article, a number of subsequent studies have proven him wrong. Want examples? Here’s one from 1999 and another from 2012. The Center for Disease Control, American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization,and the Institute of Medicine all reject the theory that there is a link between vaccines and autism.
This first argument hits a little close to home. I am diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder. I find the idea that a parent would be so afraid of POSSIBLY having an autistic child that he or she would risk their child’s physical wellbeing (let’s not forget that the side effects of some of those preventable diseases is DEATH) completely offensive, repugnant, and immoral. To me, they are essentially saying that they would rather take the risk of having a dead child than having an autistic one. Feel free to shame them with this.
Argument #2: But there are toxins in vaccines! I just don’t want to inject poison into my baby!
First, what is a toxin? If we’re defining toxin as “something that harms the body,” then almost, if not all, substances can be toxins–it depends on the dosage or level of exposure. You can die from drinking too much water, chlorine was used as a weapon in World War I but is also used, in small quantities, to ensure that tap water is safe to drink. Some of the most common “toxins” pointed out by the anti-vaccine movement are formaldehyde, squalene, mercury, and aluminum. When they and other potentially toxic substances are used, they are utilized in small quantities that are below the maximum amount the FDA has deemed safe for children under 1 year of age. This sounds quite reasonable to me, but after reading through some anti-vax websites, I can see why some parents freak out when they see the ingredient list. Let’s take aluminum as an example. Now, the FDA has studied the effects of aluminum and determined that the maximum amount children under 1 year of age should be exposed to is 4.225 milligrams. That sounds fairly reasonable. But see how aluminum levels are described by an anti-vax proponent:
“Several vaccines contain high amounts of aluminum…For example, the hepatitis B vaccine is given at birth, 2, and 6 months…each dose contains 250 micrograms (mcg) of aluminum. The DTaP shot… is given at 2, 4, 6, and 15 months. Each dose contains 625 mcg of aluminum. The Hib vaccine…is given at 2, 4, and 12 months. Each dose contains 225 mcg.” (from http://www.thinktwice.com/aluminum.pdf)
Wow! Just look at those numbers! They’re in the hundreds! Vaccines will turn my baby into an aluminum factory! Those are some scary numbers…until you realize they are measured in micrograms. If we were to convert these to milligrams, we get .25 mg for the hepatitis B vaccine, .625 mg for the DTaP vaccine, and .225 for the Hib vaccine. Now the amounts don’t seem that large at all. (Also, check out this chart that compares the amount of aluminum in vaccines to the amounts in other substances, like breast milk.)
“But what about the TOXINS! THE SIDE EFFECTS!” screams the anti-vax supporter in my head, as if he hadn’t just heard that toxicity is determined by dose or exposure. Apparently he’s hardheaded. Well, let’s get real–aluminum toxicity has been shown to be a problem in individuals with kidney failure who are undergoing dialysis. In a healthy body, “the kidneys effectively eliminate aluminum from the human body.” Aren’t kidneys great? Babies have them too, which means the aluminum they ingest doesn’t stick around and wreak havoc but is removed. Small amounts of aluminum may be retained by the body and settles in various parts of the body, but that is unavoidable with or without vaccination because of the abundance of aluminum. Aluminum levels in adults range from 50-100 mg, most of which comes from food, not vaccines. (from http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/165315-overview#a0101) (Also http://www.chop.edu/export/download/pdfs/articles/vaccine-education-center/aluminum.pdf)
As for the other substances I listed, mercury isn’t used in vaccines anymore (Guess what–some people are worried it causes autism. Shock.) and squalene isn’t used in the United States. Formaldehyde is feared because it can damage DNA and causes cancerous changes in cells in a laboratory. However, it also plays an essential role in metabolism and is required for the synthesis of DNA and amino acids, so all humans have it in their bodies. The average 2 month old has more formaldehyde naturally in their bodies than any of the vaccinations.
In short, if these parents are so worried about minute levels of various substances in their child’s body, I hope they don’t find out about the DANGERS THAT ARE ALL AROUND AND INSIDE THEM! AAAAHHH!
Argument 3: We don’t need vaccinations because major illnesses like polio have disappeared & vaccines don’t work any way
This has to be my favorite anti-vaccination argument. Do you know why we haven’t heard much about people contracting smallpox, polio, measles, mumps, or diphtheria? Because each was subject to a rigorous vaccination program that eliminated the virus. However, now that people are not vaccinating, they are slowly making a comeback. For example, measles was considered eradicated in 2000, but recently there have been cases reported in New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, and California. Now, this is the part of the conversation where the anti-vax advocate shrieks, “But if vaccinations work, why are some of those cases of people who have been vaccinated?” Well, nothing works 100%o of the time. Birth control sometimes fails (and can have horrible side effects) but most women still use it. Seatbelts don’t always prevent fatalities, but we still have to wear them. The point is that vaccines severely cut down the likelihood that one will get a preventable disease and when contracted, can lessen the effects of the disease. Everyone’s body is different, so a vaccine may not be as effective in one person as it is in another.
Argument 4: Well, how does my not vaccinating my child even affect you and your family, especially if you are vaccinated?
Two words: herd immunity. As discussed above, vaccines sometimes fail and leave people vulnerable. However, if everyone is vaccinated, then the likelihood of anyone contracting the disease in the first place is very small. Let’s look at a few examples of how this works:
Example 1: Vaccinated Steve leaves the United States to vacation in Turkey. While he is there, he comes into contact with people suffering from diphtheria. However, because he is vaccinated, he does not get sick. Instead, he returns home, disease free, infects no one, and carries on with life.
Example 2: Unvaccinated Steve leaves the Unites States to vacation in Turkey. While he is there, he comes into contact with people suffering from diphtheria and because he is unvaccinated, he gets sick and returns home. If he is returning home to a vaccinated population, then the disease should not spread, because the likelihood of Steve coming into contact with large quantities of people for whom the vaccine has failed is quite slim. One or two may get it, but it goes no further because everyone is vaccinated. If he is returning home to an unvaccinated population, then this incredibly contagious disease that especially affects children is free to run rampant in the country, killing thousands and thousands of people like it did before vaccinations.
Seriously. If you want to bolster your argument, do some research in the history of epidemics, or pick a disease that we now have a vaccination for and trace its history. My degree is in history and this is actually something that I have studied because I find it interesting and I find it hard to comprehend that tens of thousands of people died from a disease that we don’t even have today. (Author’s note: I think this is part of the problem. Anti-vaxxers can’t imagine the devastation a disease like measles or mumps could cause because the idea of people dying from something so “simple” is completely foreign to them. Some of these diseases can kill you within a day and hit the most vulnerable of society the hardest. Can you imagine waking up with all of your children and family alive and having half of them be dead by sundown because of an illness?)
And honestly, one or two people choosing not to vaccinate here and there across the country probably won’t cause a nationwide pandemic. The problem is when those people start encouraging and convincing other people in their community to not vaccinate and soon you have large pockets of people all over the nation who are vulnerable to these diseases and l spreading these highly contagious diseases to the circle of people that they had persuaded to choose to not vaccinate.
Argument 5: You keep saying that those diseases were eliminated by vaccination. That’s not true.
In this case, the anti-vaxxer is suggesting that a higher standard of living, access to clean water, more hygienic living conditions, and other environmental factors is what caused the drop in preventable disease cases. And they are partially correct–there is no doubt that these things helped tremendously. But hand washing and clean water can’t explain the drastic drop observed right after a vaccine is implemented. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia use measles to illustrate an example of this effect: between 1950 and 1963 in the US, the yearly number of measles cases was anywhere from 300,000 to 800,000. A vaccine for measles then came out, and by 1968 the number of measles cases had dropped to 22,000. I’m fairly certain people were washing their hands and drinking clean water before 1968, and unless the rate of hand washing skyrocketed, the only reasonable explanation (if they say it was God, just give up.) is that this decrease was caused by the vaccine.
Argument 6: Natural immunity vs vaccine-acquired immunity
Yes, someone’s natural immunity stemming from having survived a disease can be longer-lasting than that given by a vaccine. However, this argument assumes that they will actually survive the disease and that they will survive it unscathed. Dysentery can kill you within days. Wild measles causes encephalitis in 1 in 1000 people (compared the 1 in 1 million rate of the vaccine version). These childhood diseases that anti-vaxxers sometimes scoff at can cause serious side effects, and are much more likely to cause said side effects, than a vaccine.
Vaccinate your child. Encourage others to vaccinate. And please try to absolutely own an anti-vaxxer when you come across them. Make them cry, for their tears give me nourishment.
*Why is he doing that? Oh, you naive fool–he hates America too! You know, he’s from Kenya, right? He’s a Muslim plant, bringing us down from the inside. (I actually have heard this come out of at least one relative’s mouth recently. I weep for my family.)