The "Anti-Vaccine" Illusion

A lead story on AOL last week was “Teen Dies from Vaccine.” Farther down in the story was the “admission” that no definitive link had yet been established between the vaccine and the girl’s death and that over a million girls had already received the British vaccine against cervical cancer. In the United States over the past decade, if not longer, a growing number of parents have been keeping their children from receiving vaccines for fear that the children will suffer adverse side effects, ranging from autism to death.

The problem with both the news story and the parental reaction is that they represent the equivalent of medical no-nothingism and an unwillingness to understand as well as a failure to comprehend the magnitude of what vaccines have prevented over the years. Many of the vaccines are administered to prevent what we in western European-derived cultures would term “childhood diseases,” with a feeling that such diseases are mild and would be an inconvenience at worst. Unhappily, this is an illusion.

I’m old enough to remember classmates in leg-braces and iron lungs as a result of polio, now prevented by a vaccine. My mother remembers classmates who died of whooping cough, and an acquaintance whose child was born severely handicapped because the mother caught the measles when she was pregnant. Now… those are anecdotal, although we tend to remember the anecdotes better than the statistics. The statistics are far grimmer, if less emotionally binding. Even today, whooping cough [pertussis] kills 200,000 unvaccinated children annually, mainly in the third world [or 2 million in the past ten years], and, in 1934 alone, before the vaccine was widely administered in the U.S., more than 7,500 children died from it. Measles killed thousands of U.S. children every year prior to the adoption of the vaccine. The U.S. averaged 30,000 cases of diphtheria annually, with some 3,000 deaths each year.

Are these vaccines safe, though, ask the skeptics? For roughly 99.9% of the population, yes, but there is always a tiny, tiny fraction of those vaccinated who may suffer side-effects, as with any medicine. The early version of the pertussis vaccine, for example, did have some adverse side effects, often severe, for a minute fraction of children, including, I might add, one of my own daughters, but those who suffered from such side effects were a minuscule fraction of those vaccinated, and in the U.S., that version of the vaccine is no longer used.

Despite years of overwhelming statistics and the reduction of death rates to the point where some diseases, such as smallpox, have been virtually eliminated, anti-vaccination advocates still proliferate, preying on the fears of those who understand neither science or medicine. The plain fact is that, no matter how “safe” a medical procedure or medicine or vaccine is deemed to be, there will always be someone — one of a very few individuals — who will suffer an adverse reaction. In comparison, for every food ever developed, there is some one who is allergic to it — often fatally — but we don’t advocate no eating wheat because some people have gluten disorders, or peanuts because others might die from ingesting them.

The problem with the media highlighting isolated adverse effects or deaths from vaccines is that — given the anecdotal nature of the human brain and the fact that anecdotes affect us far more strongly than do verified facts and statistics — such reports create and have created a climate of opinion that suggests people’s children are “safer” if they’re not vaccinated. The lack of vaccine-generated resistance/immunity in a population then allows the return and spread of a disease and, as I’ve noted above, such diseases aren’t anywhere as “mild” as most people tend to believe. After all, measles is estimated to have wiped out more than half the Native American population, and was documented in decimating the Hawaiian population.

Mild childhood diseases? Nothing to worry about? Just worry about the vaccines. Think again.

4 thoughts on “The "Anti-Vaccine" Illusion”

  1. Brian says:

    Some well made points.

    However, I'm not sure that journalism was ever consistently principled. There was some romantic (i.e. deliberate rejection of truth) view that journalism was some pure defender of "The Truth" in the sixties. However, the data does not seem to support it.

    It may be worse now when compared to the forties or fifties, but it was never the saintly occupation that some might believe.

  2. jim says:

    Rumour-mongers and storm-crows 🙂

  3. Ian says:

    The death was caused by a tumour, see

    This however will not reach most of the public.

    The presentation of Science by the media is superficial and as has been commented on before here a cause for concern.

  4. L.E. Modesitt says:

    Just this morning, a news story reported that 72% of mothers in the U.S. had grave concerns about the swine flu vaccine and something like 30% plan not to have their children vaccinated. Yet we've already had one death — a healthy 20 plus male — from it here in Cedar City, not exactly the largest of communities. And we're barely into flu season.

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