Antivax: Poking holes in their claims
It all started with Andrew Wakefield publishing a sham study on how vaccines give children autism. Now, the movement has taken on a life of its own with celebrity endorsers, social media influencers, alternative medicine “gurus” all propagating this idea. On the other hand, leading medical organisations are calling this one of the most dangerous trends in the world as people are contracting diseases that no one has feared for decades.
Who started it all?
Wakefield was a British doctor who conducted a study in 1998 to find a connection between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism where there wasn’t one. Turns out, this was because he was getting paid almost 450,000 British Pound Sterling by a group of lawyers who were trying to prove that vaccines were unsafe. He used fraudulent methods to skew the results and told the press about his “findings”, which then blew up, even before the paper was published. His sham study was analysed, exposed and thrown out, and so was he.
A particularly good article on this topic is Vaccines, Autism, And The Promotion Of Irrelevant Research: A Science-Pseudoscience Analysis by Craig A. Foster and Sarenna M. Ortiz, where they describe the study, its aftermath and how it helps promote pseudoscience. Go read it.
Then, in May 2007, American actress and model, Jenny McCarthy, claimed vaccines had given her son autism. Since then, she has appeared on several TV interviews on the subject, including Oprah, where she has repeated it. This re-ignited the controversy that Wakefield started, and brought Hollywood into the fold.
So if the science is all wrong, why do people still believe it?
No vaccines ‘cause autism is weird
We still don’t know what causes autism let alone how we can prevent it. And we fear what we don’t understand, especially if it's something that can afflict a child. That gap in our knowledge is easily filled by something we can blame and point a finger at, like vaccines.
If you believe this, then consider that, in 2017, 123 million children were vaccinated globally, according to UNICEF. That’s approximately 85% of all children worldwide.
However, only 1 in 160 children across the world gets diagnosed with autism. That’s 0.625%. You do the maths.
Vaccines are blamed because autism is usually diagnosable soon after the immunisation routine ends. There’s no other connection.
Correlation is not causation
The fact that autism is usually diagnosed after the vaccine regimen ends doesn’t mean vaccines cause autism. As I’ve mentioned, the rates of vaccination are on a completely different scale than that of autism diagnosis. Just because B follows A, doesn’t mean B is caused by A. For example, it’s a fact that ice cream sales go up in summer. But so do homicides. Does that mean ice creams cause people to kill each other?
A lot of research has been done on this front by independent teams and there is still absolutely no evidence that vaccines cause autism.
Underestimating dangerous diseases
Many antivaxxers also rationalise their biases by saying don’t think that diseases like measles or chickenpox are any more dangerous than the flu.
Let’s do a quick reality check here. Measles can kill children, or even leave them with brain damage, permanent disabilities or hearing loss. Measles killed 110,000 people globally in 2017 – most of them were children below the age of 5! Chickenpox is less hostile but can be deadly to certain populations, especially very young infants and people with weakened immune systems. Also, the older a person is when they contract chickenpox, the more severe the symptoms become, which can lead to complications and serious risks, including death.
These diseases are incredibly easy to spread. Measles especially can survive in the air for several hours and infect anyone who breathes it. Chickenpox spreads through touch or through people touching items the patient has touched. That’s because the little blisters all over the body pop, and the secretions are laden with the virus.
You don’t need to be told about the flu, do you? Did you know that the flu killed 464 people in India last year? In Australia, they’re predicting the worst flu season yet with 298 people who have already died, and their season has just begun. Getting vaccinated reduces your chances of getting the flu by 40% to 60%. If you haven’t got one yet, I suggest you go out and get yourself a flu shot.
But are vaccines safe?
Vaccines do have a small risk of adverse effects, but they affect one in over 1000 kids. And they are usually minor complications, which are far outweighed by the diseases vaccines prevent. Some reactions can be more severe like seizures or high fever but these are extremely rare. Also, if a child is found to be allergic to an ingredient in a vaccine, the medication is stopped immediately. And if you’re wondering about the other chemicals that go into a vaccine, like aluminium or thimerosal, those are in tiny amounts and are in the vaccine to either preserve it or increase its effect. They are not in a dose that can cause anyone harm, even if it’s a child and they are getting many vaccines a year. As I said before, some kids can be allergic to some of these but those symptoms are spotted early, can be controlled effectively and they will never have to take any more vaccines.
If the rest of us take our vaccines, we will stop the spread of diseases before they get to these kids.
It’s not just about your kids
Vaccinations help build “herd immunity”, or “herd protection”. This means that if most people have been immunised, those who can’t get vaccinations will also be protected. If there’s no disease, there’s nothing to spread.
Taking vaccines for granted
Vaccines have done such a good job that many of us have forgotten what life, and death, was like before them. Having grown up in a developing nation like India, I remember seeing people with polio. I had chickenpox and measles. My brother had mumps. As a child, I had heard of many diseases much deadlier than the ones I had encountered. I’ve only heard of them thanks to massive vaccination drives organised by the government that eradicated the likes of polio and smallpox.
In the West, vaccination drives took hold much earlier than in developing nations. The West has forgotten how ravaging diseases like polio and tetanus can be.
It’s not just measles or polio, though. Vaccines keep several more diseases at bay, including the yearly flu (which still kills people); Pneumococcal diseases like meningitis, pneumonia and septicemia; hepatitis A, B and E; and Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Of course, there are many more for which you can find more information here.
This whole issue started off with just one bad paper. And now it’s turned into a worldwide phenomenon that’s making kids unnecessarily sick and, in some cases, actually taking lives.
Unfortunately, this isn’t an easy problem to solve since it’s such a complex issue and it so easily fits into the biases and fears all of us humans have. But that doesn’t mean we sit back and do nothing.
Each of us has to speak to loved ones who have doubts about vaccines. Tweet it, post it, do whatever you can to get good information out there about the benefits of vaccines and how much they have helped us. According to Dr Chan, Director-General, WHO, vaccines have saved over 10 million lives between 2010 and 2015. Every person who listens to you could save the lives of their own children or even someone else's.
Lest we forget, there are developing countries that are still trying to fight diseases like polio and measles by vaccinating their people. So let’s not take this amazing medical breakthrough for granted.
I naively thought I’d be able to fit the whole issue into one article. I’ve barely begun. There’s so much great information out there that needs to be shared. So I will be writing more articles on this topic. So subscribe to my RSS feed and keep an eye on this website.
What do you think of vaccines? Do you know antivaxxers? Are you one? Let me know in the comments.
Resources & Further Reading
Kulkarni SV, Narain JP, Gupta S, Dhariwal AC, Singh SK, Macintyre C R. Influenza A (H1N1) in India: Changing epidemiology and its implications. Natl Med J India [Epub ahead of print] [cited 2019 Jul 20]. Available from: http://www.nmji.in/preprintarticle.asp?id=253355
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia: https://www.chop.edu/centers-programs/vaccine-education-center