Debunking anti-vaccine myths are one of the goals of this blog, which has evolved from my original intent of mocking anti-evolution lies. Mostly, the tactics of both science deniers are the same, so most of what I write is interchangeable–it was a natural evolution to vaccines.
Yes, I went there.
There are several tactics to criticizing the anti vaccination cult. For me, it’s being pejorative (hey, I call them a cult), being rude, and mocking them with all the fervor I can find in my brain. Since ALL of the evidence supports the fact that vaccines are relatively safe and very effective, short of someone actually bring the same volume of science that disputes that fact, making fun of the cult is my reason to exist.
I know my tactics aren’t very popular in the pro-vaccine world–I really have fun doing it.
Just so all of you understand this clearly, I do not discriminate in my mockery of pseudoscience. I’ve done much worse to the anti-evolution gang. And don’t get me started on the purveyors of junk medicine, like chiropractic, acupuncture and homeopathy–I seriously enjoy making fun of them all.
However, most pro vaccine writers are much more civil. Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, who writes here frequently, is quite courteous towards the anti-vaccination movement, despite the bigoted hatred that they send her way. Some of us think that she’s treated so badly probably because she’s so polite and civil.
To be fair, most pro-vaccine writers range from snarky and pointed to civil and supportive. Some writers try to hit a balance between the two extremes by being both tough and supportive (especially to that group that we all call “fence-sitters” who are the parents who aren’t sure about vaccines).
Dan Kahan, a Yale University law professor, has authored research that delves into cultural cognition which is the study of how individuals form beliefs about the amount of risk in certain situations based on their preconceived cultural notions of good behavior. He has called me out personally for using the “anti-science” trope with respect to evolution, climate change and vaccines.
Kahan presents some very convincing evidence that more civil discussions with vaccine deniers can be more helpful–obviously, I disagree, but Professor Kahan makes extremely valid points. I’m glad that there are dozens of other pro-vaccine websites who meet or exceed his recommendations on civility. I’m too exhausted from decades of fighting against pseudoscience and straight out science denialism to change my methods now. Like I said, I’m having too much fun doing it my way.
However, there seems to be a third way to deal with the anti-vaccination crowd. It probably will not convince the true believers who think that evidence is only what supports their point of view, like the crackpots at Age of Lying about Autism who still think that Mr. Andy Wakefield is some sort of hero.
No, it’s the fence sitters who should know the facts about vaccine preventable diseases – it should scare the crap out of them.
What? Scare the vaccine deniers?
In a recent article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (one of the top peer reviewed journals in the world), the researchers examined methods to “persuade” someone that vaccines are necessary. Their conclusions are pretty clear:
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]Myths about the safety of vaccinations have led to a decline in vaccination rates and the reemergence of measles in the United States, calling for effective provaccine messages to curb this dangerous trend. Prior research on vaccine attitude change suggests that it is difficult to persuade vaccination skeptics and that direct attempts to do so can even backfire. Here, we successfully countered people’s antivaccination attitudes by making them appreciate the consequences of failing to vaccinate their children (using information provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). This intervention outperformed another that aimed to undermine widespread vaccination myths.[/infobox]
The study included 315 participants, about half of them were parents. They answered a series of questions about their attitudes toward several health care issues, including vaccines. (They used the other questions as red herrings so that the participants couldn’t guess what the actual study goals).
The researchers then showed some of the participants stories and photos from the CDC website about the effects of vaccine preventable diseases – a new direction in vaccine persuasion. Surprisingly, the participants in the group that saw these images and read the stories became more positive about vaccines, even if they were negative about them prior to the study.
Meanwhile, a control group was given the correct information that vaccines do not cause autism – they remained unconvinced, and their opinions about vaccines didn’t change at all.
I’m not a big fan of these kind of studies (there are so many confounding factors, and psychology just isn’t the type of scientific research that lends itself to an unbiased scientific analysis), but for the time being, I’ll take it as a suggestion.
One pro-vaccine writer, Tara Haelle, who reviewed this research, commented that:
[infobox icon=”quote-left”]Again, however, this is one study, with one third the number of participants as the previous one in which a similar experiment failed to affect participants’ vaccine attitudes much. And there’s still a lot we don’t know, such as how long a participant’s attitude change might last. We have a lot more to learn about reaching vaccine-hesitant parents.[/infobox]
So, let’s say that this is the first bit of data that might convince us to try a different tactic. I’ll go with it. Let’s talk about these vaccine preventable diseases.
Vaccine preventable diseases ARE scary
I’m not going to post photos. I’m not going to tell you my personal story of how I had to deal the long term effects of chicken pox. I’m not going to tell reprint a story about a parent burying a child who died of a vaccine preventable diseases.
I’m just going to give you the facts about three diseases that are, sadly, still prevalent in the USA and many parts of the world.
According to the CDC, here are the minor complications and associated risk from measles
- Ear infections–1 in 10 children.
- Diarrhea–slightly less than 1 in 10.
Major complications include:
- Pneumonia–approximately 1 in 20 children contract pneumonia as a result of measles. And it is the most common measles related death in young children.
- Encephalitis (a swelling of the brain)–about 1 in 1,000 developed this dangerous condition after measles, which can lead to convulsions, deafness or an intellectual disability.
- Death–1-2 children out every 1000 children who contract measles will die.
According to the CDC, here are the statistical facts about HPV, a sexually transmitted infection:
- Infection–about 79 million Americans are infected with one or more forms of HPV (more detailed information can be found here). Each year, about 14 million Americans become newly infected.
- Genital warts–about 360,000 people in the USA are diagnosed with it every year.
- Cervical cancer–more than 11,000 women in the United States contract this cancer, caused by HPV, each year.
Whooping cough (pertussis)
According to the CDC, these complications are the most common and scary:
- Pneumonia–1 in 4 (23%) get pneumonia (lung infection)
- Convulsions–1 or 2 in 100 (1.6%)
- Apnea (slowed or stopped breathing)–2 in 3 (67%)
- Encephalopathy (a disease of the brain)–1 in 300 (0.4%)
- Death–1 or 2 in 100 (1.6%)
The simple math
I don’t know why this happens, but many people seem to round up the risk of using vaccines to 100% while rounding down the risk of diseases to 0%.
Part of it is that we don’t see massive epidemics of these diseases (well, except for HPV). It wasn’t that long ago when hundreds of children died of measles every year. That pretty much scared the crap out of parents, prompting massive immunizations.
Part of it is that the benefits of vaccinations are not immediately apparent. For example, HPV may lead to cancer decades later. The HPV vaccine prevents those cancers, but the cause and effect is so far into the future, it’s hard to see the benefit of the vaccine.
But here’s the scary and simple math:
- The risk of dying of measles is about 1 in 1000 children infected with measles.
- The risk of dying of the measles vaccine is 0 in 1000.
Mathematically, dying of measles is infinitely (literally) higher than it is to be vaccinated.
Of course, death is not the only potential adverse event from MMR vaccines (pdf), nor is it the only one for the disease itself. Here are some of the other risks from the MMR vaccine:
- Febrile seizures (a minor event, though to a parent it might not appear so)–about 1 in 3000.
- Severe allergic reaction–about 1 in 3-10 million.
- Thrombocytopenia (a decrease in platelets–about 1 in 30-40 thousand. However, research has not shown a causal relationship.
Yet, the “risk” of getting the vaccine is substantially smaller than the actual risk of one complication to the disease itself–death. If we throw in all of the other serious complications to measles, like encephalitis or pneumonia, it’s not even close. Vaccines are substantially safer than the disease.
And unless you ascribe to some nirvana fallacy, that the medical procedure needs to be perfectly safe or it’s useless, the risk of the vaccine is far far lower than the benefit (preventing disease).
Vaccine preventable diseases are scary, very scary. Vaccines are not. This is a simple equation that I hope becomes a meme.
- Horne Z, Powell D, Hummel JE, Holyoak KJ. Countering antivaccination attitudes. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Aug 3. pii: 201504019. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 26240325.
- Orenstein WA, Papania MJ, Wharton ME. Measles elimination in the United States. J Infect Dis. 2004 May 1;189 Suppl 1:S1-3. PubMed PMID: 15106120.