There’s No Vaccine for Stupid

6eced8ab1a67c5315f2738cae6a0bb4f“Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

When I write nonfiction, I try to give people the questions they need to ask in order to think logically and hopefully uncover truth, no matter what the subject is. I like to think that most people are more intelligent than they seem to the people with whom they disagree. Thus, I tend to write more philosophical than informative articles, intended to get people thinking and researching on their own.

But there are a few groups of people who seem immune to any curiosity or reason. You might call them stubborn, irrational, or any number of things. One of these groups is fundamentalist religion, or really any form of religion that unquestioningly accepts an ancient book of poetry and mythical stories as an absolutely true revelation from a god. Another is the anti-science movement, anyone who dismisses scientific discoveries without even understanding them, anyone who distrusts all science because of whatever religious dogma or conspiracy theory they believe, anyone who thinks homeopathy could possibly be effective.

At least in my experience, these groups seem to greatly overlap. In fact, you might wonder if there’s some underlying character trait or philosophy that leads people to both groups for the same reason. My theory: Unfortunate life circumstances have made it too hard to face reality without a crutch, or they simply can’t understand complex math and logic, so they settle for a belief system that promises to give easy and absolute answers to all of their questions. It’s a comfortable place to be, and it explains why both groups share a similar persecution/martyr complex. After several failed attempts to engage them in reasonable discussion, almost all of which devolved into fallacies, personal attacks, and self-victimization on their part, I’ve realized that they have little or no interest in actually searching for truth. Their greatest desire is to be right, and to be lauded for being right in the face of oppression and injustice.

I’ve been giving these people less attention, because after moving on to learning about things like general relativity and quantum mechanics, they’re just so boring. They specialize in picking apart facts and data into such tiny pieces that, as the cliche goes, they can’t see the forest because of all the trees in the way. Maybe they know what they’re doing, maybe they’re ignorant, but either way I find such tedious arguments useless and dull.

Even so, I’m afraid I’m about to get into one. I’ll move on to more interesting topics in future articles, but first I want to address the anti-vaccination movement, mainly because I grew up in it, I know many people in it, and I recently had a “discussion” with some of them. The topic holds some interest to me since I’m both autistic and totally unvaccinated, but I’ve spent plenty of time on research and whenever it comes up, it’s the same old dumb arguments over and over again. This will be an informative article, so I will link to real professional sources, unlike nearly every anti-vaccination article on the internet.

The anti-vaccination movement is predominantly comprised of extremely conservative religious people, though it has leaked beyond their ranks. It’s an unsupported belief fueled by rumors, misunderstandings, biased “science”, and the celebrities of so-called alternative medicine who capitalize on the movement to sell products that don’t work. They like to claim that the push to vaccinate everyone is driven by greed, and while it’s true that our medical system is unfortunately capitalist (hmm, I wonder why…), most vaccines are given to each person only one to three times in their life, as opposed to the daily doses of many more profitable drugs, thus vaccines have a low profit margin and make up a tiny portion of the industry’s revenue.

There are a few major arguments that are used against vaccinations. Let’s take them one at a time, from the most ridiculous to the most plausible.

Argument: Vaccines had no (or little) effect on the decline of illnesses like measles and polio.

The facts: This argument is based on the idea that since mortality rates were already declining for most diseases when the vaccine was introduced, we would have seen the same continued decline even without vaccines. Despite being absolutely impossible to prove, the claim is based on a misleading lack of distinction between mortality rates and incidence. The incidence of a disease is how many people actually get sick. We know that improved sanitation greatly reduced mortality rates even before vaccines were discovered. It is true that the reduced mortality of diseases is due to factors other than vaccines. But that’s not what vaccines are for–they are meant to prevent you from getting sick in the first place. If we look at a graph of the incidence of measles, we see something interesting:

measles graph

Look around for the graphs shown by people trying to prove vaccines are bad, and if they’re actually labeled, you will see that they are all graphs of mortality rates. Yes, fewer people were dying in 1962 vs. 1920, but about the same number of people were still getting sick. Then vaccines showed up, and that’s when it dropped off and stayed down. This is a good indication that vaccines work as intended. The graphs for the incidence of rubella and several other diseases are all very similar; they drop sharply after the introduction of their respective vaccines.

There has been a rise in measles in America recently and the majority of the victims are unvaccinated. An Amish community in Ohio had a major outbreak of measles in 2014, which was started by a few unvaccinated individuals who traveled overseas and brought it back. If vaccines really aren’t effective, you would expect the majority of measles cases to be vaccinated people, since the majority of people in America are vaccinated, but the opposite is true.

What about polio? It did drop before the vaccine was introduced, because a huge spike in cases around the beginning of the 1950’s prompted quick action. It was such a terrifying disease that even before we had the ability to eliminate it by vaccination, we did find other ways to reduce the incidence. However, note that the number of cases in the year the vaccine was introduced was still much higher than before the big epidemic of the 40’s and 50’s. There is no reason to think that it would have taken the same precipitous dive toward zero without the vaccine. It’s certainly not what people believed in 1955…the announcement that an effective vaccine had been found was met with widespread celebration, and for a good reason. The Americas were eventually declared polio-free in 1994.

polio chart

Argument: A large number of parents claim their child became autistic after receiving a vaccine, so vaccines must cause autism.

The facts: Forget for a moment that I know multiple autistic people who were never vaccinated, and I’m one of them. Anecdotal evidence is not going to prove anything in this case. There are several explanations for why a large number of parents would think vaccines were responsible for making their children autistic. Perhaps since autism is typically noticeable (by laypeople) at around the same age as certain vaccines are given, a correlation formed that made people erroneously attribute the autism to the vaccine. Perhaps since mental disorders are so stigmatized, parents of autistic children are likely to get upset and look for something to blame, and vaccines make a convenient scapegoat. Perhaps the rare cases of negative reactions to vaccines prompted rumors that more and more people started spreading, until they’d created a modern myth on the scale of belief in alien abductions. Maybe all three of these are true and they work together to fuel a myth that simply will not die.

But we want actual data, not just subjective conjecture. Have a look at this article from a journal on infectious diseases published by Oxford. It cites the results of many studies, some of truly massive scale, done by many different people in various countries, none of which find a statistical link between autism and vaccines. You can follow the links and read the actual studies cited. It’s pretty definitive by now, and you have to wonder why the people who deny this data think anything they read on the internet can be trusted, when their own data comes from propaganda blogs, forums, and other sources far less reputable than Oxford.

Argument: Vaccines are worse than the diseases they prevent.

The facts: This is usually only talking about supposedly “harmless” diseases like measles and chicken pox. But what do the facts say? I’ll address just measles here to save space.

Measles has a death rate in developed countries of 1-3 per 1,000 cases, or 0.1 to 0.3%. What about the vaccine? Data says that about 91-92 percent of children under the age of two have been vaccinated. With around four million children born each year in the US over the past 25 years, at least 100 million children have been born in that period, and we can conclude that around 90 million of them received the measles vaccination. Now we need data on negative effects of vaccines, which is somewhat squishy if you use the source the anti-vaccine movement likes to cite. The Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) recorded just under 7,000 events related to the measles vaccine between 1990 and 2014. This is a rate of about 0.08%…for all adverse reactions, not just death. Since people are encouraged to make a report even if they’re not sure the vaccine was the cause of the event, it’s almost inevitable that some of those are coincidences.

However, one important limitation of the VAERS is that not every incident will be reported…they aren’t gathering data actively to determine the rate of adverse reactions, so we can’t use their data in that way. Thankfully, the WHO has detailed information on the possible reactions to vaccines. We find that the most common serious reaction to the measles vaccine, febrile seizures, happens at a rate of 1 in 2,000 to 3,000 doses, or 0.03 to 0.05%. On the other hand, pneumonia is a complication in 6% of measles cases (and responsible for 60% of measles deaths), encephalitis in 0.1%, and various other complications occur at much higher rates than serious reactions to the vaccine. We must conclude, then, that measles causes far more harm than the vaccine. Factor in the millions of lives the vaccine has saved around the world by sharply reducing the number of people who get the disease in the first place, and there’s absolutely no contest.

Argument: Vaccines are harmful and/or ineffective.

The facts: With this one we finally get to a tiny bit of truth, but it’s been turned into a huge lie. Yes, adverse reactions to vaccines are possible, and yes, vaccines are not 100% effective. But when you’re talking about a tiny fraction of a percent in risk, and an 85 to 98% rate of effectiveness, I’m not sure how you can honestly call that harmful or ineffective. In what world does 98% success mean something is ineffective? How do a tiny number of negative reactions make something harmful overall?

Argument: Vaccines contain “toxins”, or heavy metals, or some sort of harmful chemicals.

The facts: Yes, there are ingredients in vaccines, used for various reasons, that at high enough doses can be toxic. The problem with this argument is that the anti-vaccination movement often greatly inflates the amount of such ingredients (one case I saw was high by a factor of ten), or they’re totally clueless about what the ingredients actually do. Lack of chemistry knowledge seems very common among these people, to the point where they don’t even seem to grasp how combining multiple atoms into a molecule can result in a substance with very different properties than the individual atoms. Salt contains chlorine, and is essential for your survival, yet chlorine bleach is so nasty you don’t even want to get it on your skin. Water contains hydrogen, one of the most explosive gases in existence, and oxygen, which is an essential ingredient of fire. Why is water not an explosive substance? It’s because of how the atoms are linked together.

So when someone tells you that vaccines contain mercury, what they really mean is that some vaccines in the past (and very few today) used a chemical compound called thimerosal as a preservative to prevent contamination with deadly microorganisms. It’s actually a molecule constructed of carbon, hydrogen, mercury, sodium, oxygen, and sulfur, and is just under 50% mercury by weight. The amount of mercury in a dose of a vaccine containing thimerosal is very small compared to other sources, such as a serving of fish, and it’s in a different form that acts differently in the body. Still, even though no issues were found to be linked to it, concerns about the possibility of mercury building up in the body prompted the CDC to have it removed from vaccines more than a decade ago. It is no longer an issue, and is not a cause of autism.

There are other substances used in vaccines that get similar attention for being “toxic”, but none that are nearly as dangerous as mercury, and the response to all of them is the same…compounds act differently than pure elements, and the doses are tiny. Remember, even water is toxic in a large enough dose…and I mean literally toxic, not that you can drown in it.

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This is only a small list of a few common arguments raised against vaccines, but if these ones are addressed, I think most of the remaining ideas will have nothing to stand on. Once you’ve established the effectiveness and relative safety of vaccines, and the fact that nobody can find an honest link between them and autism, there’s nothing of substance remaining in the anti-vaccination ideology.

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